Twenty three years ago, Jeff Helmer recieved a request from a dying friend: Anna Jean Cummings asked him if he would please help keep up Antonelli Pond.
Helmer, who was homeless at the time, loved the pond and honored her request, unconditionally.
On Sunday, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz held a picnic in Helmer's honor to celebrate the past twenty five years he's spent looking after the pond, and to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Land Trust ownership. Mayor Don Lane even declared July 22nd "Jeff Helmer Day."
"[Cummings] was dying of cancer. She was 43-years-old back then. She asked me to look after the pond, so I volunteered out here for the first ten years," Helmer said.
Helmer used weed whackers and chainsaws on both sides of the pond's 14-acre property, helping to make the trails accessible to people.
"And I picked up garbage all the time," said Helmer.
Helmer is soft spoken and uses the word "beautiful" a lot when talking about his work at Antonelli Pond, even though by "garbage," Helmer means dog poop, and whatever other surprise debris might be left behind.
"Back then, people would pull right in, now it's blocked off with the chains on Delaware, but I would get here in the morning, there would be like ten cars of people who just live at the pond," Helmer Said.
Helmer says he became good friends with a lot of the homeless people.
"They were my eyes and ears when I wasn't here. And being homeless myself back then, I've always had an understanding of maybe where they're at," said Helmer.
Helmer became a counselor a few years after he started working at the pond, and often talked to these same homeless friends about how to get help if they were addicted to alcohol or drugs.
"And this old truck, it's got over a hundred thousand miles coming to the pond," said Helmer sweeping his arm towards a pistachio ice cream-colored Studebaker that he called Raphael."I'd put a little tractor in it, a John Deer tractor, it fit right in the back. We never had any other trucks or anything."
"It's my love, it's a dog friendly park," said Helmer of the 402 acre forest, also owned by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz. Helmer volunteers there.
"They picked ten and then they picked me, and I couldn't believe it," said Helmer, of his volunteer work at Byrne-Milliron Forest.
Eighty-five people showed up at the 30th Anniversary picnic on Sunday. Highlights included music by Ken Constable, who played his acoustic electric guitar under a tree, and boxes of organic Driscoll's strawberries for guests to take home.
"We're really stoked to be out here, and we hope to try and make a yearly picnic event out of this. We've got some great plans for the future of the pond," said Maddie Tyler of the Santa Cruz Land Trust.
Among those plans are a new fishing dock which is being built by an Eagle Scout by the kiosk. The Santa Cruz Land Trust is also hoping to improve the picnic areas, maybe add more docks, and possibly even add a boardwalk across the railroad trestle at the north end of the pond. (Right now, it's a rickety and shaky walk to get from the northeast to the northwest side of the pond.)
Although Antonelli Pond is tucked away, there seems to be an increase in visitors over the last few years.
"We've seen a lot of traffic out here. People love to bring their dogs, go for jogs," said said Calah Pasley, Development Outreach Manager for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz.
Do you know Jeff Helmer? Share your stories about the man in the comments!!