Shortly after her retirement, longtime Kamloops resident Hélène Guillemette was bored. After two decades as a cake decorator and several more years as an independent carpenter, she decided the pace of retirement was too slow.
“I found myself thinking, ‘what do I do now?’ Because I didn’t want to just sit around, but I also had everything I needed,” she says.
Hélène decided to turn her love of woodworking into a larger project, producing intricate hardwood ornaments in her home studio. Under the name Helene’s Woodworking, she started selling her ornaments at holiday craft markets.
But this was not a business venture. In fact, 100 percent of Hélène’s sales are donated to local Kamloops charities — she doesn’t even put any proceeds towards her own supplies, booth fees or labour costs.
Some people may not understand why Hélène would spend her retirement working for free, but it makes sense to her.
“It doesn’t make a big difference to my bank account,” she says. “What would I do with it? Go buy clothes or something? I don’t need it.”
Hélène explains the project has helped her combine her love for her craft with a need to contribute to the community.
“For me, woodworking is my passion and God has given me my hands to do the work. This is a way for me to give back in thanks for all that I have.”
“The message is really to give selflessly because the love and blessings we share with our community make it a better place for everyone,” she says, stressing she doesn’t want people to pat her on the back.
Hélène says she’s sharing her story to inspire others to take action and be generous.
“Give God the glory, I don’t want it. I’m doing this for the people of our community,” she adds.
In her first year, despite limited inventory, Hélène raised $800 for the Kamloops Hospice Association.
“I like this, this is a pretty good retirement,” she remembers thinking at the time. “It made my heart feel full.”
In more recent years, her attention has shifted to supporting Kamloops charities that help food-insecure and unhoused residents.
“Things are tough for people, and getting tougher,” she says. “As individuals, we have to put our hands where our hearts are and put in the work for our community. We can’t wait for someone else to come along.”
The next year she started earlier, creating more items like bug boxes and birdhouses and selling items in the summer months too. She added the Salvation Army to her donations list to support their flood relief efforts in Merritt, splitting the year’s $3,100 earnings three ways.
2022 marks Hélène’s fourth year selling handmade wooden ornaments and momentum is really building. She says she’s already raised over $9,000 to benefit Kamloops charities and is hoping to reach $10,000 before the end of the season.
In her workshop, Hélène demonstrates her process.
First, she tapes a stencil to a small stack with two to three layers of hardwood like maple or oak. Using a scroll saw, she carefully traces the outline by hand. After cutting, the layers separate and can then be sanded before applying stain or paint.
Some ornaments have multiple contrasting layers or small craft gems glued on to complete the design.
When asked why she chose to spend her retirement giving back to the community, Hélène turns to a proverb to help explain her motivations.
“If a person shuts his ears to the cry of the poor and needy, they too will cry out and not be heard or answered,” she says. “One day you might be in that position, so you don’t want to wait till that day comes.”
Hélène explains that while she identifies as Christian, she does not consider herself to be religious.
“To be a Christian means to be Christ-like,” she says. To her, that means living a life of generosity, compassion and humility, while caring for vulnerable members of society.
“These people need help,” she says, referring to homeless Kamloopsians. “They need mental and physical health support, clothing, water, shelter.”
And while she adds it can be hard not to judge folks, especially when people are aggressive to passersby, she stresses, “you don’t know their story.”
“I didn’t have a good upbringing,” Hélène shares as an example. “My dad was an alcoholic, and I was also abused after I left home.”
Hélène credits moving to Kamloops as an important step in her healing journey.
“I am very blessed. The people I found here were just good people. They loved over me, supported me and helped me with my education. So now it’s my turn to give back because so many people don’t have somebody to love on them,” she says.
“I don’t get to see the smile on their faces when they get a meal,” she explains, “but the money that I gave might have been part of that. I don’t have to see that person because I know that they are having a good meal and they’re going to be warm for the night.”
With so much community support behind her this year, Hélène is already motivated to get started on next year’s creations — and other projects benefiting Kamloops charities, too.
“What I want to do now is make a little ornament to hang above each bed in the new Mustard Seed shelter,” she says. Something that someone can take with them when they leave so that they know they are not forgotten by the community.”