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Vernon clean-up extraordinaire Helen Sidney named Good Citizen of the Year

Sidney turned 100 in December and still picks up garbage on Bella Vista Road daily
Helen Sidney was named Vernon’s Good Citizen of the Year for 2022 at a gathering at city hall Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

Helen Sidney had no idea what was in store for her when she came to Vernon city hall Thursday morning, supposedly to meet some friends.

Upon arrival, she discovered she’d been named Vernon’s Good Citizen of the Year for 2022.

“I haven’t gotten over the surprise yet,” she said. “This is unbelievable!”

Sidney, who celebrated her 100th birthday in December, was given the award by JCI Vernon, along with a cheque for $500 from Kidston Helm Ross LLP, to be donated to her charity or group of choice.

Sidney already knew where she wanted the money sent to: the unbuilt St. James School in Vernon.

She has a history of supporting schools. A teacher at Armstrong Elementary School for 41 years, she made headlines a couple years ago when she donated $100,000 of her pension funds to the school.

“I loved my life’s work,” she said, adding she was sorry to have to retire at 65 and would have kept teaching were it allowed at the time.

“That was my God-given gift to me was teaching. I loved those little kids.”

She recalled kids crying and clinging to their parents on their first day of school, back when she relished showing those kids how much fun school can be.

“I would take him in my arms and hold him and I said ‘come on now, we’re going to sing, we’re going to dance, we’re going to play games, we’re going to have a lot of fun!’ And I would say ‘mom, dad, please go home.’ And the next day they were happy to come back to school, because they had a lovely time,” she said.

Sidney is perhaps best known in Vernon as the lady who walks Bella Vista Road every day, picking up garbage thrown out the windows of cars. She said people driving by recognize her and honk their horns and wave, and she waves back. She said she finds everything on the side of the road from coffee cups to pizza boxes, and even empty egg cartons.

She hopes her work cleaning up the street will inspire others to do the same.

“I can’t do it forever; somebody else will have to take my place when I’m gone.”

Sidney’s daughter, Marge, said her mother is very dedicated to both Armstrong and Vernon. When she retired in 1988, Sidney moved from Armstrong to Vernon, where she could better pursue one of her lifelong passions: dancing.

“She loves to old-time dance and pattern dance, round dance, square dance; dancing has been another love of her life and that’s how my dad and her met was at a community dance in Armstrong,” Marge said.

“Up until COVID, she was dancing eight to 10 times a week.”

Even at 100, Sidney still dances, and did so at her 100th birthday party at the Schubert Centre in December with one of her favourite bands playing music.

“She’s still very active, she has good health,” Marge said.

Sidney hopes her health will last her “another 10 years” so she can keep cleaning up the community she loves, and her daughter isn’t worried about her being on the side of the road.

“I tell her to keep walking. There are so many people that wave to her and acknowledge her and know she’s there, that if she was ever to fall, I know someone would stop and help her,” Marge said.

Abby Lagerquist, co-chair of JCI Vernon’s Good Citizen of the Year award, said there was an enormous outpouring of nominations for Sidney.

“Within the first week we had nine nominations for nine different people, incredible, but the 10th nomination was Helen Sidney, and from there it exploded, and over 160 people nominated her,” she said, adding many of the people who nominated Sidney were ex-students of hers.

“We would like to also let everybody know who did nominate somebody to nominate those people again for next year.”

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

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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