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Famous Okanagan trash collector piles up birthday wishes

Retired teacher Helen Sidney, who picks up garbage on her daily walks on a Vernon road, turns 100

Okay, class, important question.

What do you do for a described “feisty, diminutive, red-haired, worker, dancer, teacher, farmer, seamstress, comedian, baker, volunteer, environmentalist, devout Catholic, award-winner, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother” for her approaching 100th birthday?

For Helen Sidney, you throw an open party at one of her favourite places, but make sure it’s got lots of seats. You’re going to need them.

A dance floor. Some music. Oh, and a bigger box for the overflowing birthday cards.

More than 100 people – how appropriate for a soon-to-be-centenarian – turned out Thursday afternoon, Dec. 15, at Vernon’s Schubert Centre to wish Sidney Happy 100th (turns the magic number on Christmas Eve).

Sidney started volunteering at the Schubert Centre in 1995 – when she was 73. She would be there five days a week, seven hours a day, finishing by 2 p.m. so she could go dancing. Sidney was the centre’s Volunteer of the Year in 1997 and presented with a lifetime membership. She had to retire from Schubert at age 90 because the centre had no liability insurance.

She would walk from her home on Bella Vista Road to and from the Schubert Centre, picking up garbage along the way both ways, something that has made her locally famous.

You could not wipe the smile off Sidney’s face as she was greeted by longtime friends, former dancing mates and a handful of former students from her 40-plus-year teaching career in Armstrong. Some of those dancing mates even took her out on the dance floor for a spin or two.

“This is just wonderful,” beamed Sidney. “Thank you all so much for coming and for making me feel so loved.”

Born Dec. 24, 1922, in Chamberlaine, Sask., the feisty little ginger still with fiery red hair – “I was born a red-head, I’ll die a red-head,” she vowed – was the oldest of John and Marion Sperling’s eight children. Sidney was taught to be a worker and helped her mom with cooking, cleaning, sewing, and looking after her siblings.

The family moved to Chilliwack, where John was working. Sidney completed high school and senior matriculation in that city, then moved to Vancouver to attend teacher training school. She received her First Class Teaching Certificate in 1944 (it was then her seventh sibling, Maurice, of Vernon, was born in 1941. She didn’t meet her little brother until he was six).

Sidney’s first teaching job was for one year, 1942-43, at a one-room school in Cherryville. In September 1943, she got a job in Armstrong at Armstrong Elementary School, also known as, ‘The Brick School.’ She mostly taught Grade 1, sometimes a Grade 1/2 split class, and also worked in the library. She had to leave teaching at age 65 due to mandatory retirement rules.

“She loved to teach, it was her calling,” said Sidney’s daughter Marge, the emcee for the birthday afternoon along with her brother, Trevor. “She would have 35-to-40 students, which is large by today’s standards, but she looked forward every day to teaching kids to read, write, spell and count, and do fun things like singing, storytelling, dancing, and doing a big production of birthday ‘spanks.’

“She never gave up on a child. She would take as much time as necessary for kids to learn the required work.”

At a high school dance in Armstrong, Sidney, met her future husband, Gordon Sidney, better known as ‘Chip,’ for ‘Chip off the old block.’ He was a dancer. They danced beautifully together. The pair belonged to both the Armstrong-Enderby and Salmon Arm Old-Time Dance Club, and they would dance every Friday night at one place or the other.

Gordon Sidney was a public works foreman, a councillor and mayor in Spallumcheen. He died suddenly in 1983 at age 59. Helen sold the family home in Armstrong and moved to a condo in Vernon on Bella Vista Road.

This is where she became quite well known for walking daily and picking up garbage, a message she always taught to her students: ‘DO NOT LITTER.’

During COVID, Sidney wanted to keep busy so she increased her walking to eight km a day – two km down Bella Vista Road and back, a bathroom break, then up Bella Vista two kms and back home. All the while, she picked up garbage along the way.

“She waved at everyone coming and going, people honk their horns or wave to her out their car window or sun roof. People will stop and thank her,” said Marge.

A few years ago on her walk, Sidney got a surprise. She saw her name on an Adopt-A-Road sign along Bella Vista. Then three more signs with her name followed.

“She has always said her guardian angel is her little sister Christina (who died at three),” said Marge. “A guardian angel who watches over her.”

Sidney looks forward to her birthday. Earlier this year she attended the Brick School’s 100th birthday, donating $100,000 to the facility.

She wants to be the first person to ring the new antique school bell to be put up in the tower at the Brick School, hopefully in 2023.

So, just before the bell rings on this history lesson: What’s Sidney’s secret to a long, glorious life?

“Positive attitude, socialize with people, laugh, smile, set goals for yourself, good exercise, good work ethic and thank God every day,” said the feisty red-head.

READ MORE: Retired Armstrong teacher continues tradition of supporting students with $100K donation

READ MORE: Sidney named Caring Canadian

READ MORE: Keeper of Vernon’s Bella Vista

READ MORE: Vernon walkers bring smiles to neighbourhood

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Roger Knox

About the Author: Roger Knox

I am a journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. I started my career in radio and have spent the last 21 years working with Black Press Media.
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