So long to Helen Overnes
After 43 years in Oliver, a treasured member of the community is packing up her home to move to the Island so she can be closer to family.
Helen was an active member of the local Women’s Institute until it folded at the start of 2018. Through the WI, she’s proud to have fought for affordable housing in town, the second set of street lights, a tweeting crosswalk for those with vision issues, and a speech pathologist for 55 children in the South Okanagan.
Helen will miss keeping busy as a volunteer, going to meetings and the camaraderie of WI.
“Everybody likes to help out and feel worthwhile,” she said.
One of her designs won a category in the WI’s Tweedsmuir competition.
Having learned to knit and sew in grade school, she turns her living room into a factory every winter to make quilts for refugees.
Refugees have always been dear to Helen’s heart. She remembers being a teenager in the mid 1940s, when Hamburg, Germany was inundated with displaced peoples during the Second World War.
She was living in England at the time, which meant taking shelter during air raids, blacking out every window every night, owning a gas mask, and rations on food and clothing.
“Milk was only for pregnant women and school children,” she recalls.
Helen remembers King George VI and Queen Elizabeth staying in London, comforting citizens to bolster support.
Her older brother went over to France to push back the Germans. As a conscientious objector, he served in a non-combat role by driving an ambulance back and forth from the battlefield, and would heat up drinks for soldiers by using a coil attached to the exhaust.
Helen studied to become an occupational therapist and then moved to Western Australia for the vocation. But only until she had enough of it. Then she traveled to Canada to explore the country as a hitchhiker.
In her travels, she happened to get picked up by her future husband, who convinced her to stay a while in British Columbia.
The couple got a good deal on 200 acres of Crown land way up north, near Dawson Creek along the Alaska Highway.
“We had outdoor plumbing and six to eight weeks of -30 degree (Celsius) weather,” she recalls.
The government was selling lots for cheap at the time, with a stipulation that the owner clear the property into farmland.
Asked how back-breaking it would have been to clear all that space, “You learn to use levers,” Helen said. “You learn the tricks, like how trees burn better in the spring when the leaves are on.”
In 1976, the Overnes family – now with three children – moved to Oliver. For years they owned and operated the 10-unit Bel Air Cedar Motel, which was on a three acre orchard that grew peaches.
At that time, there were orchards everywhere.
“Now it’s the wine capital of Canada.”
Helen remembers selling the peaches as cheap as 10 cents apiece when there was surplus to get through. But many of the extra peaches would get canned to be enjoyed later in the year. She’s an avid canner – canning enough carrots each fall to last until April or May of the next year. Canning lessons were even taught in her living room. However, this year’s canning schedule is uncertain because of her big move to the Island.
Although Helen will be missed dearly, living alone is becoming too onerous for the 92-year-old widow. She has been housebound for years and can no longer use the stairs which cuts her off from laundry. Only being able to see her family a few times each year is no longer enough.
Chronicle readers might recognize Helen for the witty letters she writes into the editor. She also attends council meetings occasionally, though she says she is not a political person.
Oliver was lucky to have Helen for more than four decades, but it’s now time for the beloved neighbour to move out west.