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A century of good deeds Add to ...

The Gift: Around $2.5-million and climbing

The Causes: Madrona Farm, Victoria Hospice Society, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Ballet Victoria, Our Place and many others.

When Helen Sawyer was growing up near London, Ont., her father taught her to set aside a few pennies each week for the church.

Ms. Sawyer turned 101 last week and she is still following her father's instruction. "It stayed with me all my life," she recalled from her home in Victoria. "I always put some aside for charity."

Ms. Sawyer travelled the world with her mother in the 1930s, studied floral design in Japan and collected rare snuff bottles from China. But she also made a practice of giving away thousands of dollars every year.

She started out donating mainly to educational projects but when her second husband died from cancer 50 years ago, her focus shifted.

"He died in a hospital and he was so badly treated in the hospital I was just shocked," she said. "The people there didn't seem to know how to look after people who were dying."

After his death, she travelled to Britain to learn about hospice care. When she returned home to London, she donated her husband's estate toward construction of a local hospice. She has been contributing roughly $20,000 annually to hospices ever since, including the Victoria Hospice Society. The gifts, she explains, are "so people can die without pain and [with]some dignity."

Ms. Sawyer has also made substantial contributions to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, including donating her collection of 90 rare Chinese snuff bottles. And, she has made large gifts to Ballet Victoria and Our Place, a homeless shelter.

Her husband, Glenn, a retired doctor who also has a law degree, is also 101 and contributes to a variety of other causes. One family friend estimated their total giving at more than $2.5-million.

Ms. Sawyer shows no sign of slowing down. Her current passion is saving Madrona Farm, a 27-acre piece of urban farmland near Victoria. Volunteers need to raise about $800,000 to help conserve the property and Ms. Sawyer is actively involved. She even put off dental work recently to maximize her financial support. "This property should never go to development," she said firmly.

When asked if she plans to keep up her many charitable efforts, Ms. Sawyer laughed and said she's just beginning her second 100 years. "I still have some money to give away."


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