From the Roadshow archives: How the Serra rest stop went from wasteland to wonderful

Jerry Morissette and his workforce revamped the rest stop with flowers and shoe polish

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This story was first published on October 8, 1993.

The Father Serra rest stop had been a place where Interstate 280 travelers did not want to stop or rest.

It was revolting.

Broken bottles, used needles, condoms, and graffiti littered the restrooms and hillside next to the freeway statue. In futile attempts to crack down on a known cruising area, the California Highway Patrol and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department frequently stopped by.

Bathroom floors now sparkle, restrooms are cleaned five, six, and seven times a day, and 150 varieties of colorful flowers cover a plot of land fit for posh Hillsborough’s backyard. Drivers stretch their legs, relax, and slurp free cups of decaf north of Crystal Springs Road.

All thanks to Jerry Morissette and his gang.

Morissette, a former monk, Disneyland employee, Vietnam medic, and recovering alcoholic, has appointed himself caretaker of the Junipero Serra rest stop.

Morissette, a self-described “’60s kind of guy,” lives in the parking lot in his pink 25-year-old ambulance. That is against state regulations, but Caltrans overlooks it because of Morissette’s work.

“We’ve gotten a stack of letters from people who stop there and say what a wonderful place it is,” said Greg Bayol of Caltrans. “Because the hill is covered in flowers, it’s safe to use the restroom…” He’s made it into a really cool little spot.”

Morissette, 50, works as a supervisor for Social Vocational Services, which was hired in 1991 to clean up the seedy rest stop. He jokes that he got the job that few of his coworkers wanted because “I can be a pain in the neck for my bosses.”

A committed workforce

Morissette’s crew consists of Eric, Scott, and Darryl (last names withheld for privacy reasons), all of whom have mental disabilities and are armed with mops, garden tools, pooper-scoopers, and window cleaner. Visitors to this once-forbidden place now have the impression that the guys in the orange work vests care.

But these guys have gone overboard.

Flowers decorate each of the six picnic tables in the back. Even the women’s bathroom has lovely nasturtiums in vases at each sink. And your bathroom should be as spotless as this.

“Absolutely amazing,” said Joanne Aubineau of San Jose after making a pit stop on her way into San Francisco on Thursday.

When Morissette hears the compliment, a smile spreads across his beard. He’s been through a lot, and it’s nice to hear that his current job is rewarding.

Morissette grew up in Los Angeles and worked at Disneyland, where he fell in love with the flower arrangements. Then, as a Navy medic at the Bay of Pigs and with the Marines in Vietnam, he witnessed the terrors and horrors of war.

In Oceanside, he turned inward, joining a monastery and tending its flowers. But he left for reasons he will not reveal. Following that, he battled alcoholism.

This rest stop has become his improbable road to redemption.

Flower polish and shoe polish

“Pretty bad,” he said, recalling the condition of the rest area when he took over in 1991. “But I discovered that shoe polish could remove the graffiti, and who doesn’t like pretty flowers?”

It was a different story getting rid of the cruisers, but Morissette had an idea. Because the cops were here so frequently, why not paint parking spaces “Reserved for CHP” or “Reserved for Sheriff”?

Why would the troublemakers show up when it was obvious that the cops would be there?

That trick was successful. The grateful officers brought a Christmas tree that they decorated in the back storage area for Christmas.

Morissette, on the other hand, wished to greet the ordinary visitor. “Just to give them a neutral zone away from the freeway, kind of like Switzerland before they’re off again,” he explained.

Personal tours of Jerry’s Garden are included. After his mother died, one man returned to plant a flower in her memory. A Caltrans employee planted a flower in memory of his late father. In honor of their child’s birth, a young couple planted a tree.

Famous visitors include director John Singleton of “Boyz N the Hood” fame. Singleton and Morissette talked about the scenic rest stop, and the director mentioned that it could be a great location for a film.

True, a scene in Singleton’s recent film “Poetic Justice,” starring singer Janet Jackson, shows a statue of Serra pointing over I-280.

Sometimes there are unexpected visitors, such as the one Morissette heard whining in a trash can last year. It was a puppy that had been abandoned. Spike the mutt is now bouncing around the rest stop, receiving numerous pats on the head.

Everyday travelers become friendly around here.

Jerry and his boys take care of it.

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