By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Richard Zay is the kind of neighbor who makes residents of other neighborhoods jealous that they don’t live in closer proximity to him.
The 62-year-old Zay has always lived a life of service — in the Air Force reserves for 28 years, as a firefighter for 35 years and currently as a road supervisor for MTS’ First Transit.
“We deal with handicapped people, wheelchair accessibility, people that don’t have the means to get places, we help them,” Zay said of his current occupation of six years.
But what really sets Zay apart from other good neighbors, is what he has done for other people while he is off the clock — like the Herculean task he recently finished for his neighbors living across the street from him.
For over 25 years, dirt and debris had piled up in a drainage ditch running behind the housing track on the west side of Lake Murray Boulevard, between El Paso and Bob streets. The problem was so bad, there were homeless camps in the area behind people’s homes.
“People actually lived in the ditch for months and people didn’t know it,” he said.
Then one day, Zay said he witnessed transients bothering some girls who were on their way to school, so he inspected the area behind the homes and found sleeping bags and a charcoal barbecue.
“And that started this whole thing,” he said.
The “whole thing” was completely cleaning the drainage ditch — a job he did almost entirely by himself for four hours a day every day before going to his MTS job over a span of nearly seven months.
“You can’t get a backhoe back here; you can’t use automatic tools,” he said. “It’s pick axe and shovel; it’s getting trash cans up here and hauling trash cans down; getting ahold of the neighbors and getting their trash cans all before Wednesday, disposal day.
“A lot of times the trash man would come and before the next one came, I came back, refilled them up and put them back out there and he took them again. So instead of picking up two or four, they ended up picking up eight at one house, because I double-filled them as they came down the street,” he said, adding that EDCO is probably glad that he has completed the project.
Zay said he filled an average of 15, and up to 24, disposal bins a week. The bins were needed to carry out the dirt and debris that was piled 3 to 4 feet high, up to 5 feet wide and stretched over 400 feet long.
“It started as to help the neighbors, then it became an obsession. You get into a routine,” he said.
Dorothy Nelson, one of the residents who lives along the now-cleared drainage ditch, has known Zay to be a reliably good neighbor for a long time, which is why she felt compelled to see him recognized for his good deeds.
“I drafted up a letter, trying to explain a lot of the background and how great Richard was,” Nelson said. “I took it to La Mesa [City Hall] and walked through the door and said, ‘I have no idea who to give this to, but I think this deserves some recognition.’”
Nelson was told by the city clerk that recognizing Zay would be “a nice positive” for La Mesa, and within a few weeks, Nelson received a certificate of commendation to give to Zay.
The certificate reads:
“On behalf of the city of La Mesa, we would like to express our sincere gratitude for your generous service in assisting your neighbors with various projects, including the drainage ditch that runs from El Paso to Bob. Your actions and community spirit make La Mesa a better place and set an example of the ways we can help neighbors.”
For Zay, helping people in need is not something to do for recognition or compensation, but rather simple appreciation.
“You start helping people and there’s a need for it; you kind of forget the overall picture of money value and you think about the idea of people appreciating it,” he said. “And for some reason, there’s a bigger value on that, especially when the need is there and people are afraid to ask. People are afraid to let other people know when they need help.”
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.