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Helen Alp, the shopping cart lady

She's been mistaken for a homeless person and rumours about her life abound, but the real story of Gibsons' Helen Alp, a.k.a. the shopping cart lady, may surprise you.

She's been mistaken for a homeless person and rumours about her life abound, but the real story of Gibsons' Helen Alp, a.k.a. the shopping cart lady, may surprise you.

Born in Greece 81 years ago, Alp never thought she would end up settling in Gibsons, spending her twilight years picking up bottles, cans and discarded trash in the town's streets.

The second of 20 children born to a teenaged mother (she was just 13 when she gave birth to her first child who sadly did not survive) and an abusive father, Alp was sent to work at seven years of age.

"I was born in a village. They had 32 acres of land the government gave them for bread making. I go work there in the fields," Alp said in her distinctive broken English, noting her father picked work for her over schooling.

By the age of 10 Alp was baking bread all day in the town's ovens.

"I make bread in the oven, maybe 32 pieces bread, each of them maybe is two kilos by myself from beginning to the end," she said remembering she hated the job, but had no choice because the family needed the money. "When my father no go to work, how the food come in? I had to work."

Soon Alp's father decided to change her career path.

"He sent me to Salonika, a big city, cleaning rich people's houses," Alp said. "I work one year there cleaning the house and the whole year I cried. She wrote a letter to mine father 'come take your daughter, she's crying every day.' So he come take me."

Home for not even a week, Alp's father decided to send her away to work again, this time caring for two children of an officer and his wife who was pregnant and very ill.

"I say 'looks like they don't want me here I have to go,'" she said noting she didn't understand until later that her father was getting money for the jobs she was doing.

The family she went to live with cared for her like their own daughter, sharing meals as a family and taking her to church for the first time. The attention was foreign to Alp and she learned a lot during her seven years with the family.

"They get the credit for who I am today," she said.

After Alp became a young woman, her time with the family she credits for her upbringing, came to an end and she craved a different life.

She decided going to Germany would be the change she needed and obtained a letter from a friend that explained she could travel. At the time a letter was needed for young ladies to travel by themselves.

On the train, Alp met a German man who worked in Greece and could speak her language. He helped her get safely to a church where nuns took care of her for the night.

In the morning, a policeman came and he spent the day trying to find Alp a job to no avail. Not wanting to leave the young Greek girl alone in Germany, the policeman dropped her off at his friend's house where she stayed for two weeks.

In the days the family would leave and she'd be alone, so she decided to start cleaning the house.

"Germans, they're not so clean as Greeks," she noted. "I clean in the windows, behind the couches, when they come and see me what I'm doing, they like me."

That was the start of a long cleaning career for Alp.

Once word of her cleaning skills got out, a friend of the family she worked for said he could get her a better job.

"He find me job in the government hospital. I work there nine years cleaning," she said.

The nurses were so impressed soon Alp was cleaning their rooms as well and she was even asked by a doctor to clean his home in her off hours.

In demand and working all the time, Alp was busy, but she realized she wasn't happy.

"I was so lonely. I work the whole day and go home myself. I pray to God send me somebody. He can love me and I can love him and nothing more. Maybe one week I pray and then I went one Greek restaurant close to me and I saw my husband sitting with some other guys," Alp remembered.

It was love at first sight for her husband-to-be Ed Alp as well and soon the couple were married.

They had two children in Germany, Richard and Victor before they heard about people moving to Canada to find well-paying jobs. They decided to give it a try.

Although some friends had waited over a year to hear if they could make the move, the government gave the Alps the go-ahead in just one week.

They decided to move to Montreal in 1966, but Ed would find it difficult to secure a good paying job in the area.

Soon Vancouver was on their radar and they moved again with the hope things would pan out.

They did and Ed secured a job cleaning for Eatons, a company that would end up paying for the couple's first home in Gibsons after their third child Edward was born.

"He went upstairs and talked to them at Eatons and they say 'you have a family Mr. Alp and you need a house. OK, you can have money for a house," Alp said, still amazed at the gesture. "He come home say Helen, go check what house you want and I'll buy it for you."

The homes available in Vancouver were small and dingy in Alp's opinion, so her husband turned her attention to the Sunshine Coast.

The couple purchased the home Alp still lives in today in Lower Gibsons for just $70,000 in 1980.

Once on the Coast, the couple started their own cleaning business Janitorial Ltd. and Alp would soon make a name for herself here as a hard-working happy woman who always made people smile.

The Alps worked for many years in that capacity until Ed became too afflicted with Alzheimer's to work anymore.

Because he had to stop working before he turned 65, he lost his pension and Alp started to worry.

That's when she started picking up bottles and cans around town.

A lifelong cleaner, Alp couldn't pass by the garbage she saw and decided to pick it up as well.

"I like my town clean," she said.

She continued the practice after her husband passed away (about 10 years ago). The bottles and cans brought in some extra cash for the widow and her cleaning was well received by the public.

Soon Alp became a fixture in Gibsons. Knowing tourists and locals would watch for the elderly woman and cheer her on, take her for coffee, or thank her for her contribution to the town.

One year Alp was honoured as a Golden Girl in Gibsons and just last year a large community celebration was held for her 80th birthday on Aug. 15.

She's very proud of her local stardom although at times she thinks it may be misplaced.

"I just a person wants to make the town better," she said.

Some rumours say that Alp is actually very wealthy, but she laughs at the thought.

"I just have my pension and that's it," she noted.

Other rumours that Alp is homeless are equally false as she is happily self-sufficient in her own home.

But with the passing of each year Alp has found it harder and harder to push her cart and pick up the trash accumulating in Gibsons.

Just a few months ago she got very ill and is still suffering from a swollen spine.

"So I can't do it now," she said sadly.

She hopes others will take pride in their town and pick up where she left off, although she plans to get back out there and do more if her body allows her to do it again.

"It's good to do. People like a clean place and they always smile. That make you feel good inside," she noted.