It seemed no matter how long it had been since someone had seen Joann Hanson, people remembered the longtime AWARE staff member and how she made them feel, according to those who knew her.
Hanson, who died Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, at the age of 76 following extended illness, left lasting impressions with everyone she came in contact with, according to AWARE shelter deputy director Saralynn Tabachnick.
“Talking about Joann’s legacy or how people responded to her, not more than two months ago, someone came to AWARE for shelter and I met with them and asked if they had ever been in before and the answer was that they had been and that they remembered Joann. So, she really touched people’s hearts in very meaningful ways,” Tabachnick said.
There will be a celebration of Hanson’s life held at Skater’s Cabin on Friday, Sept. 16 from 4 p.m.to 8 p.m. Those who would like to attend but need a ride can call (509) 761-2003. If you’d like to make donations, you can do so through the family’s gofundme page at https://www.gofundme.com/f/joa
Hanson’s daughter Roxanne Thomas said her mother was loved and cherished by everyone who knew her, no matter how long or brief their interaction may have been.
“She just lived to serve in any way possible, whether it was professionally at her job or neighbors needing food, she just lived her life trying to serve as many people in the community as she could who needed it,” Thomas said. “She was just a really special person to a lot of people in this town.”
Hanson worked with AWARE, a Juneau-based nonprofit that exists to provide safe shelter and supportive services for adults and children who have been subject to domestic or sexual violence Juneau for roughly 20 years, first as a shelter advocate and eventually as the shelter manager, as well as giving much of her time to outreach with Society of St. Vincent de Paul Juneau. Tabachnick worked with Hanson for over 15 years and said that Hanson’s love for her work was often inspiring and made her a joy to always be around.
“At AWARE we really try to support each other and be part of a team, so part of knowing her was from a professional angle, but then another part was also personal because Joann was so likable and so eager to learn and understand and also to share her knowledge, she was just a delight to work with,” Tabachnick said. “Joann had a quality of acceptance, she was really able to accept people wherever they were or whatever their circumstances were, whatever their histories were, it didn’t matter to her or it didn’t phase her or frighten her if people had mental health issues or substance abuse disorders or dealing with trauma that was historical or had been repeated over time, she was able to meet people wherever they were at in a very friendly and accepting way.”
Hanson and her husband Jim were known around Juneau as some of the more generous people in town, according to friends. The couple even went so far as to purchase a trailer near their residence so that people in need who were unable to find shelter elsewhere could have a safe place to stay.
Michelle Boerem and her mother Kathleen Hill were neighbors of the Hansons for many years, but first met Hanson while being residents at the AWARE shelter. Boerem said that over time Hanson inspired her mother to become an advocate with the shelter, as well, giving her time back to the same place that once helped her family. Boerem said she grew up with Hanson acting as a surrogate grandmother, and would often walk to Hanson’s home to take out her garbage and in return Hanson would meet her at the door with dinner for the whole family, which Boerem said was especially helpful for her mother.
“She was a very kind and generous lady, she’s done a lot for our family. It wasn’t just about money, it was more about kindness. My mom is blind and disabled and Joann was constantly going above and beyond to help us out,” Boerem said.
Boerem said that once when she was still in middle school and her mother wasn’t doing well in the hospital, Joann was there for her during that time when she needed her the most.
“When my mom was on life support in 2001, I was at school and Joann came to pick me up, she said, ‘you need to come with me,’ and when I asked her why, she said, ‘because your mom might not make it, but I’m here for you no matter what happens.’ She just hugged me and encouraged me to be strong, that was just the type of person she was,” Boerem said.
Meghan DeSloover works for Capital City Fire/Rescue as well as a relief advocate for AWARE. She started working with Hanson in 2007 at the shelter and DeSloover said Hanson quickly became her first mentor as she learned a great deal from just watching the way Hanson would interact with the women at the shelter.
“I would just sit with her in the office sometimes when she was talking with women and I would just sit and listen,” DeSloover said. “I was young and I was nervous just talking to people, all of the subject matter was heavy and I didn’t want to offend people, so just sitting and listening to Joann was such a big help for me because she was really good at connecting with people and not talking down to them or shaming them or blaming or judging and that definitely came across because people were really willing to talk to her, you could tell that they felt safe and they felt heard.”
Among the many outstanding qualities one could recall about Hanson, one that stuck out the most to DeSloover was her generosity. Desloover said that every time Hanson got paid, right after paying her bills, she was busy figuring out who among her neighbors and friends needed money, as well.
“She was extremely generous, she gave everything away,” DeSloover said. “The first time I really felt like I was in good with Joann was when I was in the McDonald’s drive-thru behind her and she paid for my meal. I got to the window and they were like, ‘oh, it’s already been paid for,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Joann really likes me.’”
Colleen Bernhardt met Hanson a little over 15 years ago when she was still in her 20’s and trying to get back on her feet. Bernhardt said she had to spend some time at the AWARE shelter with her daughter when she had nowhere else to go and it was through meeting Hanson that she discovered a new found trust in people she never expected to have again.
“I didn’t have much faith in anybody, so I thought at first Joann was just always being nosy and making sure I was staying out of trouble,” Bernhardt said. “But then I was applying for public housing and I got denied and I was really discouraged until Joann got involved and started helping me fill out applications and she didn’t stop until she finally got me and my daughter into a place to live in like a month. She truly cared about all of us women, she was there for me at my lowest times, but she was there for everybody. She never judged us, she was kind of like a mother figure and she made that shelter a home for us. The advocates at AWARE are wonderful, but Joann and her daughter, they’ve both just done so much. There aren’t many humans like Joann anymore, people like her are a dying breed. ”
Kaylynn Thomas also knew Hanson through the AWARE shelter from when Thomas first arrived in Alaska. Thomas said Hanson was there for her right from the beginning without even knowing her very well at the time. Thomas said Hanson made her feel like she always had a friend to count on in a new place where she didn’t know anyone else.
“She helped me so much, I just cry so much because I loved her so much, she used to help me out all of the time,” Thomas said. “She’d listen to me whenever I needed someone, she was the best woman I ever met, without her I don’t know how things might have worked out. I’m just so sad that she’s gone. She helped me to find me, to remember who I am as a person.”
Another coworker of Hanson’s at the AWARE shelter was Christina Love, who said that Hanson always felt more like family than a coworker. Love said that one of the things that she’ll always remember the most about Hanson was her degree of honesty and how it made her so trusted among the women in the shelter.
“She had a mother/grandmother presence that so many gravitated to, they knew they could trust her and she never let any of them down. She helped countless people with housing, food, safety and emotional support,” Love said. “Her husband and children are all cut from the same cloth of generosity and kindness. She was deeply loved and she will be deeply missed. Her spirit lives on in the generosity of thousands of people who are paying forward the kindness they received from her.”
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at email@example.com.