Sally Anderson has made a name for herself in Port Alberni as the community’s “Flag Lady”—greeting train passengers from her home on Leslie Avenue for almost two decades by waving flags from her backyard.
With the tourist trains shut down for a year, Anderson’s flags and costumes have gone into storage. But Anderson is still keeping herself busy.
Anderson is the coordinator for the NeighbourLink Society’s Read and Feed breakfast program, managing more than 150 volunteers who deliver nutritional meals to elementary school children in the Alberni Valley. The Read and Feed program started at Alberni Elementary, feeding 10-15 children. Now, in its 12th year, the program has expanded to six schools and feeds between 300-400 kids.
The NeighbourLink Society was started up in 2005 as a way of “linking” neighbours who wanted to help each other with odd jobs and labour. But as members grew older, the group’s priority shifted to the Read and Feed program.
“We all came up with the idea together to do the breakfast,” said Anderson. “I approached the principal at Alberni Elementary. Here we are now 12 years later.”
Some of the students are now taking part and “paying it forward” by reading to younger children and handing out meals. Anderson’s grandson started out eating meals through the breakfast program—now, at 17 years old, he is also a volunteer.
“Once any of these volunteers takes a turn, they’re hooked,” said Anderson. “They get connected with the children and they stay. People tell me it’s one of the most rewarding things they have ever done.”
Because of her volunteerism, Anderson was recently recognized with the Citizen of the Year award at Port Alberni’s annual Community Excellence Awards. She walked up to the stage to collect her award while members of the audience stood up and waved flags in her honour. But Anderon is hesitant to take credit for the award.
“On this award, there are a thousand invisible names,” she said. “They gave it to me because only one person can hold the plaque.”
There are hundreds of people behind the scenes, she explained, from delivery drivers to her next-door neighbour who keeps extra bread in her freezer for the program.
“It’s not just one, it’s a host of people helping to keep this program going,” she said. “It’s a forever thing, it’s not just an event or a weekend. We need to feed these children.”
Anderson was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. She jokes that she “snatched up” her husband, Richard, in Disneyland 50 years ago. Sally was on vacation, and Richard—an American citizen—was returning from deployment with the Marine Corps.
“That was the beginning,” said Sally Anderson. “We were both brought up to help others. That’s why we fit so well together.”
Richard Anderson is also well-known around town. He is the president of the Echo Centre Sunshine Club and holds the title of the oldest goalie in Port Alberni on one of the local recreational hockey teams. He also volunteers with the West Coast General Hospital Auxiliary and teaches clogging classes in his spare time.
The couple moved up from California to Port Alberni, where they purchased their house on Leslie Avenue. They have been living there for 45 years, and they are now preparing for their daughter and grandson to move in with them. Keeping family together is important for Anderson, whose mother lived with her in a mother-in-law suite for many years.
“That’s a big question for me: how do we get more seniors to stay in their own home?” Anderson said. “They’re forced to move because they can’t take care of themselves.”
It was Anderson’s mother who convinced her to start putting on a show for the trains, as the first tourist train rolled past their home back in July 2000.
“She’s the one who told me to wave the flag,” said Anderson. “Then she said that’s not enough, you have to wear a funny hat.”
Since then, Anderson has collected a variety of costumes, signs and flags from all over the world to greet the passengers travelling past her backyard. She owns tutus, feather boas, sombreros and even a Zorro costume. In the wintertime, when the Santa Train rolls by, Anderson dons a red hat and jacket, playing the role of Mrs. Claus. She even has a sign to welcome the BCIT students who take part in the conductor training program through the Alberni Pacific Railway.
“I always tell people I get to go through my second childhood,” she said. “I have so much fun.”
Aside from her job as a secretary for the Christian Life School, Anderson participated on the Canada Day parade committee for a number of years, and she also helped to band hummingbirds. Anderson is still a bit of a birder, watching hummingbirds from her window and participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count.
One of her favourite pastimes, though, is puzzle-making: the walls and ceilings of her home are covered in more than 700 completed puzzles of all shapes and sizes. According to Anderson, she and her husband started puzzles as a way to “pass the time” when the paper mill, where Richard worked, went on strike in the 1980s.
Now, she says, the Read and Feed Program takes up “99 percent” of her time. It’s her way of helping to address child poverty in the community, by making sure children don’t go to school hungry.
“They come to us, it’s a safe place, they get a smile to start their school day,” she said. “Some come and don’t even eat anything. It’s a nice, quiet place for them to be.”
The Read and Feed program is always looking for more volunteers. You only need to commit to one hour a week, once a week, at one of the six schools in the Valley. If you would like to volunteer, donate or learn more about the program, contact Sally Anderson at 250-724-2137 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact John Bassingthwaite at 250-724-0793 or email@example.com.