“Dear Trash Angel…” So begins one of the many letters Norma Andrews, 75, received on Dec. 19. Andrews has lived in El Dorado County since the 1960s, coming to the area because her husband wanted to pan for gold. But the real gold in this story is in Andrews’ stubborn determination and practical help.
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For the past 11 years, Andrews has been going on a daily walk around her apartment complex and Schnell School, right next door. A year or so ago, she decided that she could be helping while she was walking and she started picking up garbage on the school grounds. “I started noticing things and I was walking anyway, with my grabber to pick things up with, so I started carrying a plastic grocery bag to pick up garbage on the school grounds.”
She also carries a container to fill with water from the drinking fountains to water the plants that don’t receive water in their position up against the buildings.
That Andrews is walking is a miracle of modern medicine and her own determination. “I’d had about four back surgeries,” said Andrews, “and I walked because I needed to exercise, but I started having trouble with my feet. I told my doctor they didn’t work right. Then, it progressed until I couldn’t walk at all. That got kind of scary.” Andrews became paralyzed from the waist down.
In 2007, she was sent to a specialist who ordered an MRI and found a tumor on her spinal column. When the tumor was removed, Andrews’ was unable to walk. “The tumor was encapsulated in her spinal column up near her neck,” said daughter Nita Boydell. “After the surgery, the doctors told me she might not walk again, but I didn’t tell her that until she was walking.”
“I don’t want to just sit in a chair,” said Andrews whose determination took her from bedridden to wheelchair to walker and now walking with a cane. Boydell came to live with her as her caregiver, doing all the heavy work, laundry and watching out for her mother. She had a Hover-around chair lined up for her mother, but Andrews refused it.
“If I had taken the chair, I don’t think I’d be walking today,” said Andrews.”You have to be determined to be successful — life is what you make of it.”
“Now she can do almost everything for herself, ” said Boydell proudly.”She still has back pain and if I have trouble getting up in the morning, I see her getting up out of bed and think, if she can do it, then I can do it.”
Every day Andrews goes for a 60-90 minute walk around the school and she picks up garbage. In the past six months she’s been joined by a friend, Theresa Slaven, who is a caregiver in the apartment complex. Andrews’ work has not gone unnoticed.
Joy Fausel, Schnell School secretary said, “We’ve always noticed her walking up here and people have thanked her, but we wanted to recognize this lovely gesture.” Teachers talked to students, many of whom were familiar with seeing the two ladies on their walks, and students wrote thank you letters with drawings and made snowflakes. The staff got a gift certificate for the Golden Waffle Shop for both ladies to have a meal and brought the cards, letters and a tray of candy, fruit and crackers over to Andrews’ apartment on Thursday.
“I was floored that they would do this,” said Andrews. “And the letters from the children are the best.” She read several aloud, one saying,”Thank you for helping Mr. Rick. It’s a big favor to him.”
“I love that,” said Andrews. “How can you have a favorite letter? They are all beautiful.”
Andrews was a waitress for 30 years, working at the Rainbow Cafe (now Bricks on Main Street), the Raffles Hotel (now the Cary House), the Diamond Hotel and PJ’s Roadhouse. She also cleaned houses for a living. When she retired from waitressing in 1999, she kept on cleaning houses until her back gave out. She took up tole painting and her home is filled with beautiful samples of her work. Andrews has three children, about 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren and sometimes walks with them.
“I used to walk from my apartment to Robinson’s Pharmacy (about three miles)with my granddaughter,” said Andrews. “I think, on a good day, I could probably do it again.”
She was surprised by the recognition she received from Schnell staff and students.
“My grandchildren and great-grandchildren went to that school, so there is a connection for me. It’s a good school,” said Andrews. “I walk for me and picking up garbage is not a big thing. We should all do this.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530-344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @WSchultzMtDemo.