Vena Dickinson sits in her cozy Caldwell living room, the afternoon light spilling in through the window.
The shelves and walls around her are covered with figurines, potted plants and pictures of family, but she holds in her hand one particular photo — one of herself 27 years ago — about 159 pounds heavier.
“I keep this photo of my before-weight where I can see it as a reminder,” Dickinson said. “I’ve been heavy all my life. But I decided it was finally time to do something about it. I’m never going back.”
Earlier this year, Dickinson was named the 2017 International Queen by TOPS, or Take Off Pounds Sensibly, an international, nonprofit organization centered around helping people lose weight sustainably. For example, TOPS encourages people to follow the MyPlate recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which replaced the 20-year old food pyramid.
The organization selected her from a large pool of candidates who reached their weight-loss goals in 2017. With 159 pounds lost since her first TOPS weigh-in in 1991, Dickinson’s story won out, along with an International King and two runners up. She turned 85 this year.
Every Thursday since her first meeting, Dickinson has attended her local TOPS chapter, where about 18 other individuals discuss nutrition, exercise and support each other in the difficult process of losing weight. The organization primarily focuses on eating habits and general lifestyles rather than specific diets or workout regimens.
Each meeting begins with a private weigh-in.
Her first weigh-in was at 359 pounds. Dickinson attended her first meeting in Wilder a few months after the death of her husband, Clarence Dickinson Jr. Since moving to Caldwell 12 years ago, she said the lasting friendships she’s developed have been a major factor in her journey.
“It’s not a diet. It’s a support group. Almost like a family,” Dickinson said. “It’s hard, facing that scale every week. But if I ever feel discouraged, I can pick up the phone and call them. If you get discouraged, you eat.”
Dickinson said the most notable of these instances was when she lost her son, Ernie Dickinson, to cancer in 2016. Her entire TOPS chapter was present at the funeral.
“Vena is inspiring. Every meeting, she’s always there being positive and helpful,” said Pauline Calkins, Nampa resident and TOPS-area captain for much of Canyon County. “She’s done this much despite not being able to exercise as much, due to her needing a walker. It shows that if she can do something like this, anyone can.”
Calkins accompanied Dickinson to one of TOPS’ facilities in Canada, where she received her 2017 International Queen award. As Dickinson prepared to walk on stage, she told Calkins she wanted to do it without her walker, which she did.
Even after the award, Dickinson continues to attend her TOPS club every Thursday where she is the treasurer, striving to live healthy and help others achieve success on the road to their own weight loss goals as she decides her her next one.
“You can really eat whatever you want — just don’t eat all of it. I still love chocolate cake,” Dickinson said. “Just stick with it. I can’t tell you it will be easy, but it will be worth it.”