What would Kitchener-Waterloo ever do without Anna Kaljas and her family? This extraordinary woman has filled the most elemental needs for food, shelter, love and warmth of the most disadvantaged and neglected people in cities throughout more than forty years. In her own words she and her daughter-in-law Maggie provide “every thing a normal mother does in a house, nurse does in a hospital, and a cook does in the kitchen for society’s misfits one else gives a hoot about’. The “family” of twenty adults, who are now sheltered in two houses on Frederick Street, would have nowhere to go if Anna were ever to retire and close up shop. They are ex-psychiatric patients who have been discharged into the community, but who are unable to care for themselves or to fit into other shelters. She affectionately calls them her “goofballs” and they affectionately call her “Mom.”
Anna’s service to the community has evolved and changed over time, always in response to perceived needs, lived experiences and reflection upon these. In 1954, while working as a Registered Nursing Assistant at K-W Hospital, Anna bought her first house at 277 Frederick Street and opened her doors to immigrants. She herself had been a refugee for a number of years following the takeover of her native Estonia by Russia after World War II. She knew what it was to be a “person with no place to go”, then commonly called a Displaced Person. One of her first guests was Eric who emigrated from Austria and who subsequently became her husband of forty years until his death two years ago. She fondly reminisces that “he came for shelter and forgot to leave.” They shared a love for art, theatre, music a simple lifestyle and hard work on behalf of others.
Over the years Anna has owned as many as five houses on the corner of Frederick and Simeon Streets near downtown Kitchener and, as different needs arose, has provided temporary homes to teenagers in trouble, drug addicts, alcoholics and ex-convicts. Thou sands of people have Anna to thank for sheltering them when they most needed it. Some have died, some have married, some still maintain contact and two are now working in Correctional Services.
But it is for those whom she feels are society’s neediest people, people with psychiatric illnesses, that she now concentrates her love and energy. Her concern is to provide the most stable and supportive environment possible to people who do not have the ability to function normally. Her home has become their permanent home where an attempt is made to normalize life with a minimum of rules and red tape. Everyone is encouraged to help around the home but no one is forced to do work that they don’t want to.
Anna, at 84, has 'retired' to a four day week and is driven to her Moorfield area farm every Monday by her son Peter. There she does laundry for the houses, stores food in the cold mom and does canning and preserving in summer and fall. Maggie takes charge of the houses in the city during the week. Seven days a week these two women prepare three meals per day, shop for food, dispense all prescribed medications and spending money and respond in the many needs of their little community. Their work brings them in regular contact with mental health personnel, hospital, police, and ambulance staff, corners and court officials.
Rooted in Community
These are heroic tasks and the Kaljases are heroic people, although they would not describe themselves that way. Anna has received many awards, including the Order of Canada, and has been featured in newspapers and magazine articles, on CBC television and in a play. But a visit to the Kaljas home will find them steadily going about the necessary tasks of day-to-day living. Anna, herself, is a very colourful, expressive but unselfconscious woman who immediately puts a person at ease with her familiar “Hello, Deane, would you like a cup of coffee?” Maggie brings a friendly, efficient and gentle presence to the house, its inhabitants and visitors. Anna’s son, Peter, owns and operates Kaljas Landscaping but also devotes time and energy toward their homes. One senses strong family bonds as well a strong commitment to the community.
Gregory Baum, in the foreword to “The Working Centre: Experiment in Social Change”, says: 'What I admire- - and where I see God’s hand- -is that the social movements at the base continue to be bearers of a utopian vision, the vision of a peaceful, cooperative society where all can eat and where all can be friends. My hope is that in the present culture of anti-solidarity, the efforts of these communities will not only help a growing number of people to live a life of dignity in difficult circumstances, but also promote a countercultural under current in society spreading the ideals of cooperation and solidarity.'
Anna Kaljas saw a glaring need in her community and has taken action. She decries bureaucracy and red tape, choosing instead the more human response of meeting simple daily needs in a direct personal way. Anna has opened up her own home, her private space, to a host of strangers on a day-to-day, year in, year out basis. She and they have become immersed in each other’s lives thereby creating a community where co operation and solidarity are paramount. This is what makes her so extraordinary. Very few of us would be able to live this way. But she is happy. Her house rings with laughter and her boisterous voice. Apart from a 'little arthritis in her knees' which has forced her to reduce the size of her farm garden, she is not apparently bothered with the usual constraints of aging. She is still capable, at 84, of a good day’s work. She might long ago have really retired to her farm, 7 1/2 acres on the edge of a river, “where all my dreams are”, but she is called back over and over again to those who need her. She has rooted herself firmly in this community and she knows she is needed in an era where so many people feel useless and redundant.
It seems fitting that this community should recognize her invaluable contribution to its well-being.