A Little Help From My Friends: Ann Knowles

Ann Knowles
  
“How would you like to go to Africa?” Bill Thomson asked his children at breakfast. It was 1969. Bill’s daughter, Ann, was 16-years-old and just finishing up driving lessons on her parents’ convertible. 
  
“Oh, yeah… neat,” she said, thinking it was another one of her father’s travel fantasies. Days later, Ann’s bags were packed for South Africa. 
  
“Sixteen years old, just learning how to drive, had a convertible, and we were going to Africa?” Ann says, now 66-years-old, sitting in her Windsor home decades later. “That was a shocker.” 
  
Bill had itchy feet. He was a civil engineer and town planner. His interest in housing development led him to lecturing opportunities at universities all over the world. The Thomsons were never in one place for too long. 
  
“I grew up all over the place. We were in Britain and we were in South Africa and Lesotho, and New Brunswick and Winnipeg,” Ann says.  
  
After Ann got her teaching degree she found herself in West Hants, where she worked as a professor at the local community college and teacher at Avon View High School. Somewhere in between she raised a family of four. 
  
Her children all grown up and with kids of their own, Ann now lives alone in Windsor and has for the last 10 years.  
  
“I wanted to go to a place that was closer to neighbours. I wanted a sidewalk. I wanted a place where the children could play and I wanted a yard that was manageable,” she says, sipping her coffee and glancing at her immaculate garden.  
  
But the fragrant rose bushes and vibrant purple irises masked a feeling that began to creep up on her as she grew older.  
  
“In any city, because I’ve lived in lots of places, you can feel that you’ve met lots of people and still be alone nonstop.” 
  
With her career behind her, and decades of life ahead of her, Ann knew she couldn’t wallow in that lonesome feeling forever. With so much time on her hands, and a yearning to fill her life with meaningful work, Ann stumbled upon the idea of co-housing.  
  
Co-housing, she explains is a type of community where people pool their savings to create a village of houses, usually centred around a common house with shared amenities like a kitchen, dining room, playrooms and the like. 
  
Listening to Ann’s ideas makes me remember my trip to Lebanon so many years ago. I remember my parents’ village, where no one is alone for more than an hour a day, making meals together, eating together and playing card games on little plastic tables on the side of the road. 
  
“I love the idea of people all sitting together for meals, and making bread together and gardening together,” she says. “And then I realized that all of that fit into co-housing.” 
  
Ann drove her kids crazy talking about co-housing. She had all these great ideas and few people to share them with in an open dialogue. At the same time, the Happy Community Project had formed and was starting to gain traction in Windsor.  
  
“I thought, well, happy communities – co-housing is meant to be a happy community. That’s the whole point of it,” she says. 
  
That’s when she leapt at the opportunity to join Welcome Newcomers, a regular social group to help new residents meet locals and other newcomers in Windsor and West Hants. After a few get-togethers at the local wine bar, Winegrunt, Ann felt the need to host an event in a more intimate space. 
  
“I thought, okay, how many nights can they come here?” she says. 
  
In a matter of weeks, Ann hosted her first Welcome Newcomers night in her home. 
  
“We sat around the table for hours, talking about food and silly, fun things and where they all came from. I think it really helped a lot.” 
  
Through Welcome Newcomers, Ann has seen new residents flourish, even taking positions in other Happy Community Project initiatives and activities. 
  
“You know, those ideas you have in your head, that oh, ‘why don’t they do this, why don’t they do that, to make the town better.’ Well, we have to make the town the way we want it.” 
  
Hearing and sharing ideas with her neighbours offered her an insight into how co-housing could lift off in a place like Windsor, where the community is becoming more and more connected and open to change. In fact, Ann is inspired to create some changes of her own, starting with The Neighbourhood Call Tree. 
  
The idea comes from Ann’s aunt. In her small thatched-roof, English village, Ann’s aunt can call on the “village helper,” a local volunteer, if ever she needs a hand with chores or issues at home. 
  
“Mainly, they help people get to the doctor’s appointments, go for groceries,” Ann says. “Most of the calls were for people just wanting someone to drop in.”  
  
Here is how the Neighborhood Call Tree works. Someone in the neighborhood needs help – they call someone who calls two people, who calls two people, until the help shows up. 
  
It was a no-brainer for Ann to put her idea to the test at a recent Happy Community Project meeting. For her, the idea of a village helper can put an end to the loneliness and disparity that afflict many people in Windsor and West Hants, including herself. 
  
Listening to Ann tell her story, I was overcome with optimism. It baffles me how someone who has been all over the world, has met all sorts of people, could still feel lonely in a town that she’s lived in for a decade. But, hearing how she overcame that struggle, through her involvement with co-housing and Welcome Newcommers, reinforced my belief that Windsor, and other communities, can be happy communities through open dialogue, shared responsibility and one great idea. 
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