Big Island nature park with colorful ʻōhi‘a trees honors two volunteers posthumously
November 25, 2022, 3:00 PM HST
On the Big Island 23 years ago, volunteers transformed a 10-acre green space in the heart of Waimea from a tangled mess of invasive trees with ground covered in Christmas berry into a beloved community park called Ulu La‘au.
One of the park’s founder, Carol Hendricks, who also was a past president of that volunteer group, Waimea Outdoor Circle, worked for more than six years to get the state to lease the land for the park.
The park has the largest and most colorful collection of ʻōhi‘a trees in the state. Most of the trees were brought to the park by former Hawaiʻi County Councilmember Leningrad Elarionoff.
For their efforts, Elarionoff and Hendricks were posthumously awarded the DLNR & YOU Citizen Conservationist Award during an event Friday at Ulu La‘au, which also is called Waimea Nature Park.
Hendricks died in April 2018 from cancer complications and Elarionoff unexpectedly died in September at age 83. Both gave their love and labor to the park until their deaths.
The awards were presented by Bob Masuda, a Waimea resident and first deputy for the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).
Elarionoff’s and Hendrick’s families were on hand to accept the awards while several volunteers worked diligently at Ulu La‘au at the same time.
Elarinoff and Hendricks were among several dozen volunteers, young and old, who spent endless hours whacking weeds, clearing invasive plants, mowing and tidying up the green space to create the park.
The current volunteers and members of the Waimea Outdoor Circle also received the award.
“Some of our volunteers have been here from the beginning,” said Cheryl Langton, president of the Waimea branch of The Outdoor Circle, in a press release. “Now, they’re in their 70s and 80s, and some have passed on.”
Langton added that the work of the volunteers embodies the spirit of community-based forestry.
“I personally have lovely memories of being at the park with Leningrad and Cheryl,” said Heather McMillen, who leads the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife Kaulunani Urban and Community Forestry Program, in the press release:
“Cheryl gave us an intro to the place and Leningrad entertained and educated our Kaulunani Council with many stories. He also shared ōhi‘a pen holders he had created himself from fallen ōhi‘a. It sits on my desk as a reminder of Leningrad and the generosity of spirit he shared.”
Hendricks’ husband Pete continues to volunteer at the park. He said the award recognizes his late wife and her fellow volunteers for their efforts to make Ulu La‘au the beautiful community park that it is today.
“The park is a wonderful community asset, created and maintained by volunteers,” Pete Hendricks said Friday after receiving his wife’s award. “Ulu La‘au quickly became a lifelong commitment for Carol.”
When Elarionoff ran for Hawai‘i County Council in the late 1990s, his campaign was all about people working together to accomplish goals. He also wanted to make sure his 11 grandchildren and all future generations could experience at least a little bit of the life he lived growing up on the island.
So Elarionoff — who was born in Ka‘ū and lived in Waimea — put the work in, always investing in his community, which included the park.
“He put so much passion and physical work into every project that he was involved in,” said his daughter Kehau Lincoln of Waimea.
Elarionoff also had a 26-year career with the Hawai‘i Police Department and represented Waimea and the surrounding area on the Council from 1998 to 2004.
Lincoln said the award honors her father’s commitment to his community and the park, which was a huge part of his life for the past 20-plus years. He even became known as the ʻōhi‘a man of the Waimea Nature Park.
“The park started when people realized there were fewer and fewer open spaces in Waimea, not many parks and a lot of private land,” Langton said in the press release.
The invasive species are gone and now all of the plants in Ulu La‘au are native Hawaiian.
“We have a collection here of about nine different colors of ʻōhi‘a lehua,” Elarionoff said in an interview several months before his death. “When people come here, they cannot believe there’s so many different colors.”
Ulu La‘au, which means “a garden of trees” in Hawaiian, is situated along the Waikōloa Stream. There are walking trails, covered picnic areas, many benches in quiet, shaded locations along the stream, a native plant garden and educational signage throughout. There also are several memorials to past park gardeners.
The park provides an area for peaceful public recreation and a place where people can learn about the native plants of Hawai‘i.
“Waimea Nature [Park] was one of our first community grants, which supported the purchase of trees,” McMillen said in the press release. “The founders and volunteers have done so much more than just plant. They’ve transformed empty, weed-choked ground into a verdant native forest, where many different people come to enjoy.
“The number of people the park reaches, and the number of volunteers is remarkable. Many school classes visit the park for ecology, botany, forestry experience and more.”
Volunteers and the Waimea Outdoor Circle also help raise awareness about rapid ʻōhi‘a death, a scourge that has killed more than 350 million ʻōhi‘a trees around the Big Island, according to the Plant Pono website.
“There’s this misconception that everybody in Waimea is wealthy, and truthfully for a lot of people in this community, this is the only place they have to be outdoors, to picnic, to gather with family and friends,” Langton said. “We have five public and private schools within walking distance of this park.
“It’s a good place for them to do community service. It’s a safe place to walk; you don’t have to worry about traffic. It’s open every day of the week. It’s free and it’s just a wonderful resource for the community. I think it’s a really great achievement, we’ve done a lot.”
None of that could have been achieved without the vision of people like Hendricks and Elarionoff.
Lincoln said her father wanted everyone to enjoy the park and benefit from it. He encouraged others to get involved to maintain and operate it so it could be around for generations to come.
He loved that the park is located in the center of town and that keiki could walk through it to get home safely from school, avoiding busy streets. He also enjoyed that anyone could come to the park after work or school and just relax and enjoy the beauty of Ulua La‘au.
“His spirit is so strong here,” Lincoln said. “Every time we come here, I feel his presence, and we do come here regularly. We sit and you can just feel him. It’s always a very, very happy place for us and it always will be.”