Nova Scotia

N.S. woman takes 102 walks for 102nd birthday to raise thousands for VON

Joy Saunders, the 101-year-old from Lunenburg with a dedicated following, has completed her goal of walking 102 times before her 102nd birthday. She has raised money for VON Canada in Nova Scotia.

'I hope that we all get to grow up to be like Joy'

Joy Saunders, centre, crosses the finish line after completing her 102nd walk around Lunenburg on Saturday. Saunders has raised over $71,000 for VON Nova Scotia as part of her walking campaign. (Madeleine Kendall)

Arms raised in triumph, 101-year-old Joy Saunders broke through the final ribbon as cheers and clapping filled the air to mark a special milestone — nearly two months ahead of schedule.

She has been raising spirits around the province and country, as well as funds for VON Canada in Nova Scotia, since May. 

She set a goal to walk 102 times along an 800-metre loop through her town of Lunenburg, N.S., before her 102nd birthday in late October.

On Saturday morning, she took her final walk with her great-grandchildren and other family members by her side. They were cheered on by a large community crowd lining the route.

"It went very well, it was terrific," Saunders said Saturday afternoon.

"[It's] all over — and I did it."

Not even a medical setback could keep her from reaching her goal.

She had a bad fall and broke her arm and several bones halfway through her campaign.

She didn't know if she'd ever get up again, but she did.  After a month recovering, she got out her walking sticks again and hit the road every day after that.

Although the walk was live streamed on Facebook, and people were asked to watch from home if possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, "nobody could stay away too far from Joy," said Emily Mansour-Hemlow.

Mansour-Hemlow, fund development manager for VON Nova Scotia, was at the finish line on Saturday. She said Saunders wasn't even winded when she took her final steps.

"She is inspirational. The fact that she, at 101, chose to support her community … as she has her whole life, speaks volumes to what a role model she is," Mansour-Hemlow said.

"I hope that we all get to grow up to be like Joy."

Why she walks for VON

She was inspired to begin a walking project when she heard about Second World War veteran Tom Moore, who raised millions for the U.K.'s National Health Service by walking laps of his garden before he turned 100.

A Second World War veteran herself, and a long-time volunteer with VON and other community groups, Saunders told CBC's Mainstreet on Friday that she loves her daily walks, so she doesn't think she's done anything that special. But she said she is "delighted" to have raised the money.

She dedicated her fundraising campaign to two VON staff, Kristen Beaton and Heather O'Brien, who were killed in the Nova Scotia mass shooting earlier this year.

"We were all very upset about that. And I just thought they were two excellent VON nurses," Saunders said.

"So there, I hope I've done something half good at my age. It's about time," she added with a laugh.

So far, her campaign has brought in more than $71,000.

Joy Saunders, far left, is joined by her great-grandchildren and other family members on her 102nd walk around Lunenburg on Saturday. (Madeleine Kendall)

For Derrick Babin, VON's senior manager for Community Support Service in Nova Scotia, the funds are amazing but Saunders's unbreakable spirit has given their organization a huge lift.

Losing Beaton and O'Brien was incredibly devastating, Babin said, so having Saunders come in with her campaign offered their team a new focus and, fittingly, a ray of joy.

"I know many people are incredibly moved by what Joy is doing and has done and continues to do," Babin said.

"It's incredibly impactful and we're beyond grateful. There's really no words to be able to express properly."

The Walking for Joy Facebook page has over 1,000 members, where Saunders's journey has inspired others to get in shape and stay positive.

A video also showed famous faces like Heather Rankin, Lennie Gallant, Premier Stephen McNeil and Mayor Mike Savage lending Saunders their congratulations.

O'Brien's daughter Darcy Dobson, and Beaton's husband Nick also made appearances in the video to deliver their thanks.

Nick said his wife would have loved Saunders's story and had "a huge smile" seeing everything she has done for VON.

"You give the rest of us ambition to push forth and keep continuing on with day to day," he said.

Campaign got Saunders walking again

Although Saunders has always loved walking, after she lost her golden retriever she was devastated and didn't see much point in it.  But this campaign has given her a "great incentive" to get going again. 

Saturday also isn't her last walk by any means. She plans to keep up the exercise.

She also hopes that her story inspires people at every age to keep moving and become more involved in their communities, especially those who might be retired and looking to keep busy.

"There's always something you can do. You never need to be bored," she said.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet