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A Ray of Sunshine: The Life of Annie Harder

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Annie Harder of Niverville. Brenda Sawatzky

Few people embody joy and contentment the way Annie Harder does. Annie is a resident of the Heritage Life Personal Care Home and an almost lifelong resident of Niverville. To those who know her, she is a ray of sunshine.

Annie was born in Chaco, Paraguay, the youngest of 12 children. She came into this world with an unusual genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. As a newborn, her limbs were like that of a rag doll.

As she grew, she needed to be handled with kid gloves. Doctors predicted she wouldn’t live past 12 years of age.

“I proved them wrong,” says Annie with a grin, now 59 years old. “They don’t always know.”

At six, Annie and her family moved to Niverville and made the community their permanent home.

Annie managed to walk until she was nine years old, but she could never run and play like the other children. She was kept home from school for most of her childhood. The risk of breaking bones was just too great for her parents to risk.

“My mom always said I was a very content child,” Annie says, in spite of her sheltered life.

Eventually, as her legs began to weaken, she rode a tricycle around the household and, by 12, became bound to a wheelchair. Over the course of her childhood, she experienced breaks in almost every bone in her body, including about 20 breaks to her arms alone.

“I never was unhappy,” Annie says. “I would always be happy for kids that could run and play but I would never, never envy anybody… By the grace of God, I knew I could handle this.”

Annie grew up in a family that lived by a very strong faith in God. This, she believes, is what set the tone for her to be able to accept and find joy in her lot in life.

“I believed that God could heal me if he wanted to, and I still do, but it’s in His time,” Annie says. “If He wants to heal me, fine. But if not, He’ll give me grace to bear it.”

At 16 years of age, her parents made arrangements with the Niverville Elementary School’s principal to allow Annie to attend classes for the first time. She was placed in a Grade Four classroom, but, one week in, it all came to an end.

A student who’d been instructed by the teacher to wheel Annie home accidentally bumped her wheelchair against a curb and toppled Annie to the ground. Her broken bones were severe enough to warrant keeping her at home and out of harm’s way once again.

While at home, Annie learned vicariously through her siblings’ education. Her parents had never learned English, so at 16 they hired a local tutor to bring Annie’s own education up to speed.

In spite of her delicate physical state, Annie was able to enjoy a number of road trips with her parents, visiting the Watrous Hot Springs in Manitou and touring the Black Hills of South Dakota. She even revisited her childhood home in Chaco.

For the majority of her life, Annie’s mother was her primary caregiver. She never conceded that role to anyone else until she turned 82 and simply couldn’t manage any longer.

With Annie’s father already passed on, the pair eventually moved into the Niverville Credit Union Manor—as roommates.

“I liked it there,” Annie says. “I could go out more.”

By this time, both Annie and her mother had electric scooters and the two would venture outdoors almost every day, taking joyrides around town.

“We raced down the streets,” Annie jokes. “I took her out a lot… until her eyes got so bad and then I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Their roles slowly shifted, with Annie taking on the caregiving responsibility for her mother. But as her mother’s health continued to decline, the family had no choice but to panel their mother for a personal care home.

Since Niverville was still two years away from getting their own care home, Annie’s mom was taken away to live in Steinbach. Annie found the separation from her mother and lifelong friend almost unbearable.

“It was hard seeing her crying when I came to visit,” says Annie, who admits that the separation was even more difficult for her mother.

When the Heritage Life Personal Care Home opened its doors for the first time, Annie’s mom was among its first residents. Since Annie required the aid of a special lift to get in and out of bed, she made the transfer to the PCH as well.

By this time, Annie’s mother’s dementia was taking over and Annie found herself feeding her mother at every mealtime.

“As long as she could hear my voice, she was fine,” Annie says.

Her mother has since passed on and Annie misses having her in the room next door. But Annie hasn’t skipped a beat, keeping herself busy by visiting other residents of the PCH all day long, every day.

In a place where dementia and death are the norm, Annie brings a special kind of hope and joy to the residents living around her.

“I love visiting people in here,” Annie says. “I go around and see who’s up… I always say I’ve been a senior all my life, because I’ve [spent my whole life] with seniors.”

While she misses her home at the manor, she continues to hike across the building to play cards with her friends there. She also volunteers twice a week at the adult daycare, playing games with the aging.

Because of Annie’s whimsical outlook, the personal care home has become her bed-and-breakfast, where her meals are always ready and her bed awaits.

“I’m never at home in the summer,” Annie says of her continued freedom to scoot around town during the nicer months. “I like to be on the road every day.”

She spends her time browsing the MCC Thrift Store shelves and eating meals with a sister who lives nearby. The food, she admits, tastes better at her sister’s place.

Winter months are harder for Annie as the season feels interminably long. To alleviate her thirst for the outdoors, family members stop in regularly and take her on outings.

“Life is good,” says Annie. “I don’t allow myself to get depressed. I could. I would have reason to [be down]. When I first moved in here, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, am I just going to sit in my room and not come out?’ But I’m glad I didn’t.”

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