Moorefield resident still dedicating life to others at age 95

Anna Kaljas has dedicated her life to helping others, and she says people from all walks of life have generously donated to help her cause over the years.
The 95-year-old Moorefield resident is hoping more selfless individuals can come forward one more time to aid her and her family as they attempt to raise enough money to cover renovations at three Houses of Friendship in Kitchener.
Kaljas is selling a book about her life, entitled A Lifetime of Memories, for $40, with all the proceeds going to the upgrades, which were order­ed by Kitchener public health officials.
Kaljas, who has received the Order of Canada for her humanitarian efforts,  opened the Kitchener hostels over 50 years ago, and has had her share of run-ins with the city ever since.
“I just want to help people,” she said in an interview on Nov. 16.
The three houses, which are all at least 100 years old, are currently home to 17 individuals – each battling some sort of mental illness.
The hostels, now run by Kaljas’ son, Peter, and his wife, Maggie, have always relied on donations, fundraisers, grants, low-interest loans, and debt write-offs to survive.
And for over half a century that model has worked – but the problem now is a lack of funds to pay for the mandatory up­grades.
A leaking roof (and subsequent water damage), as well as outdated plumbing and dila­pidated flooring and carpets are just a few of the problems that need to be fixed.
“They want all the work done right now, but we don’t have the money,” she said.
So, her family is hoping that selling the book will make enough money to get all the required upgrades completed.
To date, sales are going okay, thanks to the aid of several individuals who are helping her sell the 122-page biographical book.
Mapleton councillor Dennis Craven, for example, has al­ready sold at least 10 copies at his church, and has picked up even more books to sell.
Many more need to be sold before the work at the hostels can become a reality.
The book, written by Mer­vyn Mothersell, is an insightful look back at Kaljas’ life, starting with the childhood influence of her aunt, Anna, who worked in a hospital in their native Estonia.
Kaljas helped her aunt at the hospital, and later, as a young woman during World War II, she taught mentally challenged children while the country was occupied by Russian and German forces.
She eventually fled Estonia, with thousands of other Es­tonian refugees, for Sweden. She arrived in Kitchener in 1951, and worked as a nurse’s aid at what is now the Grand River Hospital.
During the 1950s, Kaljas and her partner, the late Eric Rosar, bought several houses and turned them into hostels.
They welcomed with open arms the homeless, the mentally ill, and alcoholics – people deemed untreatable by conventional social services, and for whom the hostels were a last resort.
Many of those were veterans who turned to alcohol or drugs to deal with their own personal anguish.
“They used to tell me that nobody cared if they died,” she said of those early residents of the hostels.
Kaljas did not have the heart to turn any of those individuals away, so the houses became crowded, with people sleeping in hallways and even in bathtubs.
At one point, the couple owned five houses – and regularly cared for 50 people.
“That really aggravated the city,” she told The Wellington Advertiser.
City officials did not like having those individuals in the heart of the city – they had an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, she explained.
“They thought I was gathering worthless people in the centre of the city,” she said. “One even said I was gathering rats and keeping good people out of the city core.”
Those types of comments are largely a thing of the past, although Kaljas said there is still one group of people in the city that thinks the hostels should not be located downtown, because they affect city businesses.
Over the years the city has increased insurance and utility costs, forced her to upgrade facilities, and made her change her methods of providing services. Although they were likely bound by legislation and acted to protect the city from possible liability lawsuits, Kaljas cannot help but feel city officials were extra diligent when it came to enforcement at her Houses of Friendship.
One time, she recalled, city officials told her she was no longer allowed to serve crack­ed or misshapen eggs, which she got from a Kitchener farmers market for free.
“‘You have to get first grade eggs for the people,’ they told me. What did they think I was, a millionaire?” she said with a laugh.
But over the years Kaljas has bent to pressure from the city and has always provided everything asked of her.
It’s clear her motives are truly altruistic.
She was once known as the Snake Lady, because in addition to helping people, she and Rosar adopted and cared for several exotic pets, including monkeys, boa constrictors, a python, and a giant anaconda.
“Hundreds of kids came to see them. It was like a zoo on the back porch,” she said.
Few people now refer to her as the Snake Lady, and she retired from running the hostels over a year ago. She now spends a lot of time in her home on RR1 Moorefield – where she has lived for over 30 years – dealing with arthritis and high blood pressure.
But it is clear Kaljas never stops thinking about those in her hostels.
“Those people are my own now. I told them, ‘You belong to my family,’ ” she said. “I have to keep [the hostels] going. It doesn’t matter how.”
To order a book to help with renovations at Kaljas’ Houses of Friendship, call Dennis Craven at 519-638-2971.