C. Thomas — local volunteer interviewed

Everyone knows Cheryl Thomas; she writes letters to the editor and sits on most committees in this town

By Margot Venema

Would like to meet … Cheryl Thomas

Everyone knows Cheryl Thomas; she writes letters to the editor and sits on most committees in this town. Ask any person in Clearwater and they will have an opinion of her; good or bad, she triggers a reaction in all of us. Through her regular submissions to the newspaper we know her passion for volunteering, the environment, and for creating food sustainability for our valley. We read about her fervour for the farmers market, the art and crafts fair, and the literacy program, to name just a few of her causes. We all think we know her, but do we really?  I decided to find out.

We meet at the Community Resource Centre in an empty meeting room. Cheryl turns out to be a small bubbly woman in her late 50’s with long grey hair and an infectious laugh. It is easy to talk to her and she willingly takes me on a 2.5-hour story ride through her life.

Changing the world for the better

 

Cheryl knows what poverty is. Born in Loone Lake Saskatchewan, a town that has ceased to exist, she learned to take care of herself early on.  Life on the farm was tough.

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Her father owned a small section of land where he did mixed farming. They grew all their own food and canned it. They would only go to town for tobacco and sugar. Countless times, she would have boiled wheat for breakfast.

 

Her childhood has emphasized the importance of teaching people to help themselves. She would love to drop off packages with water, food and a shovel to help the people in Haiti, although she would prefer to help the people who are silently suffering.

Volunteering

A proud lifelong volunteer, Cheryl feels that volunteering is the most gratifying a person can do. This way she can give back to her community. Her first volunteering job was as a candy striper in Chilliwack in the extended care unit of the hospital. Volunteering gives her the freedom to do what she enjoys without the restrictions that come with a regular job. It also takes her places, like Tai Pei, Japan, where in 2010 she organized the Canadian display on soilless gardening for the International Flora Expo.

Life is one big adventure

Travelling is in her blood. She always keeps her passport current and some money in savings.

“You should never dream about doing something, but do it now,” she says. “Life is just too short and you only have one chance to live it. You will never get another chance at living this moment over.”

Her first big trip was at age 16. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 12 and her father was left to care for his five children. One day, he placed a personal ad in Free Press Weekly and Fran, a widow with five children responded, telling him how hard it is being a single parent. They hit it off. She came to visit with her children once, only to turn around immediately. Cheryl still sees their red station wagon coming. She remembers the shock in their eyes; Saskatchewan was flat and there was nothing to do for teenagers.

Not long after that visit, one day in September, Cheryl found her dad crying in the honey house. He had received a letter from Fran. She wanted to break up because the long distance relationship was just too hard on her.

“Don’t to be foolish and don’t give her up,” Cheryl advised him.

He followed her advice and called Fran from a pay phone outside of the local pub in the freezing cold during the Christmas holidays. They decided to get married. The next day he told his kids to each pack one suitcase because they were moving. They never got to say goodbye to their friends. It was a culture shock.

They ended up in Chilliwack, where the grass was green and the weather mild, crammed into a tiny little house, with a miniscule bedroom that Cheryl shared with the four girls. The boys slept on the living room floor. They were lucky they did not own a lot of stuff because she doubts that they would have been able to fit it all in. When they had more money they jacked up the house and built another floor, creating more room for everyone.

The importance of family

She has been married for 38 years now. She met Jim – with whom she has three children and seven grandchildren – at Manning National Park, BC where he worked at the local gas station and she worked as a waitress at the lodge. She saved him from the ditzy girl he was dating at the time. But before they tied the knot, Cheryl decided that a girl could not get married before seeing the world so she saved all her hard-earned money and travelled to Europe with a friend. They got themselves a railway pass and off they went, visiting all the famous European cities. Upon return, she got married on a Monday night at 7 p.m. The only night they could get their friends and family together. The only person missing was one of her sisters who was – no surprise here – away travelling.

She tells me that she is the favourite of her family and it is easy to see why. She shows a genuine interest in the world around her. She likes to talk too much and asks lots of questions. She thinks she was popular as a kid because she did what she was told, and she did not question anything as opposed to the other children, who would sometimes talk back. Her family was and is – her community – the most important people in her life.

She admits that her dad was her biggest influence. A hard-working kindhearted man, who cared for the underdog and never turned anyone away. He told her “get an education and never stop learning.” She took his advice to heart compiling an impressive array of diplomas and certificates. He also instilled the love for reading in her. He would read to his children and grandchildren aloud and when he turned blind near the end of his life, she returned the favour.

Letting go

It’s often interesting where people get their ideas on how to live their life and Cheryl is no exception. “I’ll do it myself,” said the little hen. And she did.” The sentence comes from the kid’s story “The Little Red Hen.” It has been Cheryl’s motto for most of her life.  In this story, the little red hen decides that she will eat whatever she has produced herself and that she will only share it with her direct family, because her friends did not want to help her with the sowing, growing, and harvesting of a few grains of wheat she found.

Cheryl modifies the end though. She will still share with the world even if they didn’t help her because that is in her nature.  Only recently she learned that she doesn’t have to do it all herself and that she can let go. Maybe someone else will step in to do it or maybe it is just not important enough for anyone to care about. It is a liberating feeling to be able to let go.

Favorite spot on earth

Time has flown while talking to Cheryl and there is still so much to be said but she really needs to go home because Jim is waiting with dinner. He cooks for her most evenings. I have just enough time to ask her one last question.

When asked, “What is your favorite spot on earth?” she tells me that it is “lying on the ground, watching the clouds go by.” Sometimes she goes out on a clear night and lies under the stars to contemplate life. She hopes that every day she can leave the world a little better than she found it.

We part as friends.

– Submitted by Margo Venema