An unassuming Cochrane woman who has spent a lifetime giving a hand up to those who have fallen through the cracks of a broken system is looking to raise her charitable efforts to the next level.
Johanne Rieland, with the hard work and support of her husband, Joe, of 33 years, has a dual vision: to open a men’s shelter in Cochrane and to build a tiny home community for men in need on a small piece of land.
“If the town is willing to give us a place to build it, we will build everything ourselves, ” said Johanne, who has spent a lifetime working in kitchens and on construction sites – as has Joe, who works as a framer.
It’s an ambitious goal and complements her fervent passion for picking up and dusting off those who have been discarded by society and restoring basic human dignity.
“There are a lot of people who say they want something better for Cochrane … she puts into action everything she comes up with, ” said friend JJ Ludwig, owner of the Texas Gate and Rockyview Hotel, who has stepped up to help Johanne’s efforts whenever possible.
Ludwig was one of Johanne’s helpers last week, when she hosted a Christmas dinner for more than 50 people in need at the Jumping Pound Community Hall on Dec. 23 – an annual event that Johanne foots on her own limited dime and has had to move out of her home for space reasons.
“People say they don’t matter … but they used to be your neighbour, ” said Johanne, tears of anger streaming down her face as she thinks about her years of observing human cruelty of the marginalized.
A plaque on the wall of Johanne’s homey kitchen in Sunset Ridge reads: “life is not a destination, it is a journey. ”
It is the mantra of Johanne’s life – layers of stories of seeking out those in need where most people don’t think to look, connecting them to the basic necessities of life, teaching them survival skills and showing a measure of rare empathy.
She finds them in Calgary. She finds them in Cochrane – where she has lived for 21 years.
They are in stairwells, on benches and in between buildings. They are in tents and in ditches. In rural campsite areas and along riverbanks.
Johanne finds them, uncovers their stories and does what she can to feed and clothe them and often to connect them to health care services.
Her stories span her global travels – beginning as an adopted child from the East Coast who spent most of her childhood living in Europe as her military father rapidly climbed the ranks.
She remembers living in post-war Germany and her mother unnecessarily hiring a housemaid, Ursula – which turned out to be a ruse to rescue the woman from plowing fields for her abusive, drunken husband who beat her incessantly.
Her family unsuccessfully tried to bring Ursula back to Canada with them and Johanne said to this day her mother still wonders what happened to her friend who used to drink coffee and eat Danishes with her.
She reflects on being a young girl and carting down homemade sandwiches to the people living under the Roman Colosseum, surviving on rats and cats.
“I never understood the point of learning about the French Revolution … when there’s people across the street picking for food in the garbage, ” said Johanne, admitting she was a better student of the streets than in the classroom.
While she is supportive of Cochrane’s recent initiative to get the ball rolling to build a women’s shelter in town, Johanne chooses to focus her own efforts on the marginalized men in society – some with criminal records or with safety concerns that prevent them from staying in shelters or centres in Calgary.
She reveals many of the men she has helped over the years were once success stories – they had wives and children, careers and houses.
Some of them face addiction, largely alcoholism. Some battle mental and physical disabilities. Some just can’t seem to catch a break and get ahead of their financial woes, fragmented family networks, or can’t ask for help in the face of pride or societal expectations of traditional masculine roles.
“I pick up a vibe and I can usually tell … you would be surprised what people will tell you – they will tell you everything, ” she said.
Johanne teaches them to can and preserve their dumpster dive finds, cook without pots and pans and make a dollar stretch as far as it can go – including her own, which she uses to purchase discounted meats, second-hand clothing and whatever else she can gather to give.
As Johanne lives with COPD, a diagnosis she was given several years ago following a lifelong battle with severe asthma, and her husband’s skin cancer has resulted in ongoing treatments and routine trips to the doctor, resources are limited.
On her bucket list is a soup kitchen for Cochrane – something she feels is strongly needed in the growing community.
“You think Cochrane is full of rich people … open your bloody eyes – there’s people in serious need here, ” said Johanne, stressing that many in need do not fit the requirements to receive assistance from charitable organizations, such as a permanent address.
Johanne can be reached at 403-200-7067.