A Photo Story: Helen + Cal


I spy with my little eye…

A pink, plastic tea kettle, a sealed package of marijuana, a coiled rope, a golf ball, a toddler’s sandal, a toy figure of The Flash, wired security tags, a bagged pacifier, a tennis ball, bubbles, a toothbrush, new tissues and a silver tiara.

According to Helen and Calvin (Cal) Swindell, these are only some of their finds.

Since moving from Chelan, Washington, to Bellingham, Washington, in 2005, Helen and Cal have been picking up all trash in sight during daily, neighborhood walks.


“The doctor over there – our family doctor – says ‘get out and walk,’ so we started doing it here,” Cal said.

With saved, plastic grocery bags in hand, the pair take on separate sides of the street to cover more ground and collect the most garbage. Cal said Helen travels faster than he does, so she will usually take a seat somewhere up ahead until Cal joins her.

Helen said she has back issues and arthritis, so it’s strenuous to squeeze a trash picker – what Cal uses. Instead, Helen bends down to gather littered items with her hands.

Though mostly walking in the bike lane of the street, a sidewalk or a trail, Helen and Cal will often venture off the path to grab trash.

During a walk, Helen places a beer can in Cal’s bag designated for recyclables while Cal uses a trash picker to put garbage in his other bag.


Helen and Cal always carry multiple bags to sort their finds. Cal usually handles the recycling bag.

Since Helen is typically ahead and Cal has the recycling bag, she will sometimes snag recyclables she sees and move them in the open for Cal.

“So we joke and say we’re just a couple of old dogs – she’s the pointer, I’m the retriever,” Cal chuckled.

Here, Cal picks up an empty water bottle Helen left out for him moments earlier.

Helen bends down to fold a tarp while Cal waits nearby.

When the pair find larger items along their walks, they place them in sight and return to gather them with their car once they’ve finished on foot.

Other than trash and plastic recycling, Helen and Cal uncover abandoned clothing and personal items. If in decent condition, Helen will wash and donate the clothes. She said she’s found clothes she ends up keeping for her own wardrobe, too.

“It’s amazing what people will throw out,” Helen said.

Here, Helen places a pair of shoelace-less Air Jordan sneakers in her bag while Cal clamps a plastic bottle with his trash picker.

Cal greets a neighbor’s dog with some treats he stores in his pocket.

“Besides the exercise, Helen and I like to walk to see our neighbors, keep the area clean, and see what we can find,” Cal said.

A different passerby said her dog loves Cal and knows him as “The Treat Man.”

Cal sits in his office. Years ago, Cal was a systems engineer with Boeing in the moon-landing program. Due to the success of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA created 217,015 medallion coins containing metal from the spacecraft that made it to the moon in 1969.

Cal was given some of these medallions to commemorate his participation.

Today, as Cal’s retired self-duties include picking up trash, he keeps track of how many cigarette butts they find each walk. To help count, Cal says memories aloud, such as, "69 butts – the year we made it to the moon."

After a walk, Helen and Cal head back to their condo and garage. Located near garbage and recycling bins, it’s easier to record and sort their day’s finds. Cal points to a page of their logging system, which highlights each walk’s route used (out of seven), number of trash bags, number of recyclable items, number of cigarette butts and comments, such as weather conditions. Cal sometimes doodles a smiley face when there is a low amount of cigarette butts recorded.

“Over the years we’ve noticed less cigarette butts, so we think people are maybe smoking them less,” Helen said.

Cal and Helen have kept a record of all items they’ve come across during walks throughout the years.

If the Swindells find anything like wallets or passports, they try to contact the rightful owner.

Cal and Helen have been recognized by Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville for keeping their community clean. In fact, many people in the neighborhood applaud their efforts.

“If some people see what we do, maybe it will make them aware and want to help out too,” Cal said.