Chances are you’ve connected with Johanna before - she’s the one who makes those little cardboard thingies that keep your Rifton items safe in transit.
“There’s no hope for her; you’ll just have to wait till she dies.” The family physician’s rather callous prediction served as fighting words for Jan Vrijling. He found a small box in his shed, lined it with a hot water bottle and cotton wool, and placed his two-pound baby daughter inside. His wife was extremely ill, so Jan was solely responsible for his tiny charge, whom he proudly named Johanna. For her first weeks of life, she lived on droplets of sugar water as she lay unmoving in her makeshift incubator.
In 1929, few people in Holland had heard of therapy. It was common for children with cerebral palsy to spend their lives in asylums whose primary purpose was not rehabilitation, but removal from society’s sight. Jan Vrijling did not want that sort of future for Johanna.
Despite dire predictions from doctors, he determined to do his best for her. But where to start? At age two, Hanna was only just beginning to crawl. She could not hold up her head, her back was getting crooked, and she screamed nonstop all day.
Jan hit upon an idea that would motivate his daughter. At mealtimes, he placed her food just out of reach. It soon became clear that Hanna had inherited her father’s determination. She began crawling to her food, and later learned to maneuver a spoon painstakingly into her mouth.
An older Hanna, now 71, remembers wryly that the food used to shoot all over the room! Her father’s unfailing mantra was, “You can do it. You will do it. I know you can.” And she did.
When she was three, he said, “Your mother is getting too tired to push you around in your wheelchair. You’re a big girl; it’s time to put the chair in the attic.” “I fell down a hundred times, a thousand times,” Hanna remembers. “My father knew some Judo self-defense moves, and he taught me to fall safely, to master myself, and keep in control.”
Going to school, Hanna ran a gamut of taunts from her classmates. “Hey, are you drunk?” Their comments only fueled her determination.
Life did not get any easier as it progressed. When Hanna was four, her father suffered a severe head injury while working on the shipping docks. It left him incapacitated for months and never quite her “old papa.”
In the years preceding World War II, Jan had great difficulty finding work, and as the Nazis reached farther into the countries surrounding Germany they became the only hiring employers. To keep his family alive, Jan had to concede to his enemies. He got a job captaining a tow barge, and ferried machine parts in Germany. His family lived with him on the boat.
The rivers of Germany were bulls-eyes for Allied planes, and the Vrijling's small boat of aircraft components was narrowly missed on more than one occasion. Jan poled the barge up a narrow estuary and docked it in a tiny pond. They officially lost themselves for about a year, out of the target area of the bombs and far away from their cargo’s intended destination.
Hanna’s eyes still sparkle as she remembers this act of defiance. “But then,” she says, “you could do anything in Germany at that time; it was in chaos.”
The war escalated, and the growing girl found her life confined within its violence. Autumn of 1945 saw her a sober woman of 17, determined to spend the rest of her life countering the horror and the pain she had witnessed. At age 23, she found her way to a small Christian community group. “I found my fulfillment,” she smiles. “This is where my gifts, however small, contribute to life and to peace.”
The gifts Hanna brings to her community are not small. Filling napkin holders for the dining hall takes an inordinate amount of effort and not a little pain, due to severe arthritis. But nobody had better imply that she should leave the work for others! And it’s a sorry day if there is a snowstorm and her power wheelchair can’t get her to the Rifton factory where she likes to fold cardboard inserts.
Hanna knows about stiff fingers, about muscles that don’t always do what you tell them, and joints that remind you painfully that they’re not as flexible as you wish. It is appropriate that her careful efforts go to kids whose frustrations, dreams and goals she can understand and support. Those kids who fall down “a hundred times, a thousand times,” and are still going strong.