Described as a neighborhood visionary, Sunny Helbacka’s investment of time, energy and resources in West Duluth led him to be recognized as West Duluth’s 2010 Neighborhood Hero.
Helbacka’s contributions to the community have promoted healthy lifestyles, especially for children. He retired from the City of Duluth in 2007 after 31 years as a recreation specialist.
From helping to establish West Duluth’s soccer program, the Duluth Community Sailing program, and Duluth Table Tennis Club to promoting hockey, speed skating and the Special Olympics, he’s had a hand in it. He has spent many hours championing these events and fondly shares how he spent many evenings chaperoning neighborhood children. Through a community service program for minors, Helbacka mentored kids and supervised their required hours of restitution to the community.
As an avid bicyclist, he worked on a comprehensive plan for new bike trails throughout Duluth, including the Western Waterfront Trail. Mayor Fedo presented him an award recognizing his dedication to the bike trails. Helbacka was involved in the design and the implementation of the Far West Collaborative.
This brought together the City’s park department, Duluth Public Schools, nonprofits, St. Louis County social services, UMD recreation sports program and the community clubs to form programs in environmental adventure recreation. He also played a significant role in the development of the Valley Youth Center/Copeland Community Center’s expanded programs.
“From the time I was 15, Sunny was a mentor to me,” says Angelo Simone, West Duluth resident and Site Director of Valley Youth Center at Copeland. “He gave me a chance, taught me how to respectful and kept me on the right track; I would not be here today without him.”
Sunny and his wife Michelle live in lower Smithville on the St. Louis River surrounded by beautiful gardens they custom designed. Their gardens are listed on the registration for Monarch Butterfly Wayside. They have three grown children and two Newfoundlands.