In a world where it is always the presidents, the CEOs, or other “bigwigs” that become synonymous with an organization and its legacy, it is quite fitting that the figure who most represents the history and impact of the ASK Wellness Society has had on its community and its clients was never an Executive Director, a board member, or even an employee. No, she was simply a volunteer. A volunteer who has dedicated her life to a cause that many have shied away from or even been afraid of; the battle against HIV/AIDS. Of course, if you have had many interactions with the ASK Wellness Society over the past 28 years, formerly the Aids Society of Kamloops, you will know we are referring to. For those who do not know, this is the story of a woman who has lost over 100 friends and acquaintances to the deadly disease and turned that pain into action to make sure future generations would not feel that same hurt. This is the story of Cookie Reimer.
In the early 1980’s Cookie was living in Lillooet and working in a bar where she met a man who would go on to become a life-long friend of hers. He is gay and every month he would make a trip to Vancouver to party and be surrounded by more like-minded individuals than there were in the small Interior community.
“I started to go with him,” says Cookie. “I met the most amazing people. By 1985 I had met hundreds of people. Then they started to be positive.”
Of course, Cookie is referring to what would turn in to an epidemic within the gay community: HIV/AIDS.
“They partied hardy in those days,” she says. “All the clubs in Vancouver in those days. But nobody knew it was that dangerous to be hooking up for these one night stands.”
All of a sudden what had been normal activity through the 1970’s and early 1980’s, meeting somebody in a bar or club and hooking up for a night before returning to the doldrums of regular adulthood, became deadly.
“It was really unbelievable,” Cookie recalls. “It was the saddest thing. I have been in hospital rooms holding friends’ hands. I have made last suppers for friends that have died. From 1983 to the present I have lost 114 friends and acquaintances to AIDS.”
At the time, the health impacts of the disease alone was horrendous enough, but in the early 80’s the medication used to treat those who tested positive was AZT and other medication cocktails.
“I’m not sure which was harder,” Cookie says. “The medication or the actual disease. It killed them. But that was their choice, period.”
Cookie says going to memorials and getting phone calls of lost friends became a regular occurrence going to memorials. Even as the disease began to slip out of mainstream attention she continued to feel the loss, losing nine friends in 2003 alone.
“One of my friends who died on February the 5th, 2020, his fridge door was lined with meds,” she recalls. “They had all quit working. The cocktail of drugs quit working and he died. Today people can take two or three pills in a day. My friends were taking handfuls of pills twice a day. When the combo of drugs stopped working, you were done.”
Not only was a positive diagnosis a near death sentence for many, but the stigma also that came with it was equally damaging.
“They kept their illness secret,” she says. “They hid their pills if anybody came around. If they were going down to Seattle to party they didn’t take their meds because if they got searched they were turned away from forever. Same as Mexico.”
Cookie goes on to say she would introduce people she knew with a positive diagnosis to other friends of hers and they would avoid shaking hands or even standing to close to somebody with the disease.
In the latter part of the 1980’s, Cookie had thrown herself into volunteerism and advocacy for those who were living with HIV/AIDS. She began taking part in the AIDS walk in Vancouver and had developed a reputation as strong fundraiser from whom nobody could escape.
“Nobody was sacred,” she says. “My doctor, lawyer, dentist, everybody. Nobody was safe from a pledge. Though I did reward a lot of people with my dills and my yum-yum pickles.”
After a lot of time and effort supporting the cause, in 1990 Cookie married her husband and the pair moved to Kamloops where she had plans to focus on things other than her advocacy and volunteering.
“When I moved here I made the big decision that I was not going to volunteer for anything for ten years,” she says.
It did not take long for her to break her promise.
In 1991 she met Alfons Jalink, founder of the Aids Society of Kamloops which he had started in his basement in 1988, and the Society’s executive Director Mary Ann Sandrelli. At first, Cookie held to her initial promise and did not get right back into volunteering, despite the pleas from the Society. However, by September of 1992 she could no longer resist her desire to rejoin the fight.
“A few friends came up from the coast and from Kelowna,” she says. “We decided we were going to do the AIDS walk in Kamloops. We met at the Grind on Victoria Street and there were very few people there. Mostly they were hovering around the BBQ for the hot dogs. Not a lot of walking was going to happen. I said to Maryann ‘Let’s walk around this block and when people ask we’ll let them know we’re doing an AIDS walk’.”
And so, it began. When they returned Cookie pulled out $300 and asked Sandrelli who was collecting the pledge money.
“Maryann looked at me and said, ‘Nobody really does the pledges and collects money,’” Cookie recalls. I said, ‘That is the whole idea – to raise awareness and collect money for the organization.’”
A few days later, Cookie was asked to speak to some staff members of the Aids Society about how they should go about fundraising.
“And I went ‘here it goes,’” she says. “So, I talked it over with my husband and he said, ‘you’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing this.’”
Cookie met with the Society staff members and gave them a “rah-rah” speech about what they do in Vancouver. After that, Sandrelli kept in touch with Cookie, asking her to join the board of directors or any other way she could keep her involved.
It wasn’t long before Cookie was in the office every Monday, cooking meals for the Society’s clients who by this time were not just those with HIV/AIDS diagnoses, but anybody who needed a helping hand.
“It was a really mixed bag of people who were down and out and the Aids society was an open door,” she says. “The New Life Mission also served meals, but you had to listen to a sermon before you got fed. Salvation Army also served a meal. Then the United Church started. There were only a few places you could get a meal.”
Initially, Cookie was told she would only be cooking for about ten to twelve people. That rang true for a couple of months. Soon after that, as word spread of the great meals churning out of Cookie’s kitchen, the number of mouths to feed grew to over a hundred. As is always the case though, no good deed goes unpunished.
“The health department came along because we didn’t have a dishwashing system, we just had volunteers who washed the dishes,” she says. “I said to the now Mayor of Kamloops, Ken Christian, because he was the public health guy, ‘Are you kidding me? These people live on the street. They’re eating out of dumpsters. We’re serving them a meal on a clean plate. It doesn’t have to be with a dishwasher.’ Anyway, he shut us down. I was so annoyed. I wrote a huge letter to the editor. But anyway, that stopped.”
While the meals stopped, Cookie’s involvement in the AIDS walk in both Vancouver and Kamloops continued. By the late 90’s she was raising several thousand dollars every year that would go to support the cause. Along with being the top fundraiser, she was also organizing the walk in Kamloops, though she describes it as more like a fair.
“We would get like 200 to 300 people and do it at Riverside Park or Stuart Wood Elementary School,” she says. We would have a band and a really good walk all around downtown. Teachers, doctors, lots of people took part.”
This period was a time of change for the Aids Society. Sandrelli had moved away and was replaced as the Executive Director by Jo Rothenburger who Cookie describes as “so liberal and non-judgemental”. Cookie and Rothenburger hit it off quite well and she was accepted by all the clients and staff, though there were only five or six employees at the time.
Jo served as the Executive Director until she retired and was replaced a couple times before the now Chief Executive Officer of the ASK Wellness Society Bob Hughes entered the scene.
“It was the greatest,” Cookie says of her first memories of Hughes. “The board said to Bob ‘You’ll meet Cookie, whatever she asks for, just give it to her.’” (See a message about Cookie from Hughes below).
As the years rolled on under Hughes’ leadership, the Society began to grow in size and impact. Despite the growth, what Cookie describes as the enthusiasm and aura of the Aids Society continued.
“Bob has this natural way of energizing people and the community embraced his energy,” she says. “His speaking ability and charisma really enhanced our ability in the council and on the streets of the North Shore. It has just come such a long way. I am so proud.”
Overtime, the AIDS Walk in Kamloops and across British Columbia began to diminish. The 20,000 person events in Vancouver now only saw around 1000 people, and in Kamloops the large BBQs in the park were replaced by much smaller gatherings. But one constant remained at the Kamloops events: Cookie did the cooking.
“We get to about 2017/18 and the stigma around HIV is kind of fading I guess,” Cookie says. “Because of the meds, because of the treatments, people are becoming a little complacent. The walk and the rah-rah around it began stepping back. Kira Haug had come on board in the 2000s as well and was an amazing co-organizer with me.”
“The first meeting I had with her to organize our first AIDS Walk For Life left me a bit intimidated,” says for Haug, a former ASK Wellness Society BBI Health Navigator, “Cookie is a force to be reckoned with! From that first meeting we threw over 25 events, including World AIDS Day, HEPATITIS Awareness Day and Walk With Us. Let's just say she knows what she wants and won’t accept anything less! I am so grateful to call Cookie my great friend and family.”
In an attempt to rebrand the event, the name was changed from the AIDS Walk For Life to Walk With Us, but interest and participation continued to dwindle. 2018 would also prove to be the final event that Cookie would organize.
“In 2019 I was diagnosed with cancer and I had a huge surgery and I couldn’t cook,” she says. “But the most amazing thing happened. The ladies, the staff and some clients, they made all the stuff I would have made for world aids day. I was two weeks out of the hospital and they were having World AIDS Day and they were having my food. I was able to be there for over an hour.”
Cookie says 2020 has been a year of recovery for her, and she was hoping to get back to doing at least some of the cooking for this year’s event which will not be able to take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was also honoured earlier this year by the organization she has dedicated so much time too with the official groundbreaking of Cookie’s Place, a 55 and up housing facility that will be opened in Kamloops in the fall of 2021.
Despite the drop in attention that HIV/AIDS and those who deal with the disease over the years, Cookie, now 74 years old, still continues to spread awareness where she can.
“I have three grandsons. They’re all teens. They know everything about condoms and safe sex,” she says. “They go ‘Oh granny’, and I say ‘you can’t be safe enough.’”
While she still hopes to “get her groove back” when the world returns to normal and hopes to be cooking again for the AIDS Walk 2021, she has a simple message for all of us:
“Be careful and encourage everyone not to be complacent.”
A message from ASK Wellness Society Chief Executive Officer Bob Hughes on Cookie Reimer:
December 1st will always stand as a day that changed my life. I had just accepted my role as the Executive Director of ASK Wellness Society in 2006 and I was invited to come to the agency’s annual World AIDS Day event to introduce myself. During that wonderful afternoon, snow began to fall around the then new offices of the agency located at 433 Tranquille Road as we began the powerful opening ceremony led by Paul Legace honouring those who had passed from HIV/AIDS. An abundance of the most decadent foods filled the rooms of the warm welcoming space that has served as home base for ASK ever since. At the heart of this most compelling and emotional event was one of the most remarkable human beings I have been blessed to meet, our Cookie Reimer.
Cookie has defined the core values of ASK since its inception. Compassion, Hope, Inclusion, and Trust are these values and the ethos of the agency stem from the fight against AIDS. Cookie has and continues to be our local hero having led the entire Thompson Region to understand the impact of what discrimination and stigma had on people living with HIV and to fight for their dignity as they faced the prospect of dying from the virus. She has literally single handedly raised over a hundred thousand dollars for the organization to support people living with HIV/AIDS in the last twenty years and has fed people with kindness and love for an eternity. Our Cookie is like no other and I am so grateful for all she has taught me as I continue to strive to live to her standard in serving my community to ensure no one gets left behind. She remains my mentor, my friend, and my inspiration as I recognize the importance of World AIDS Day and the work ahead to build better, more inclusive, and compassionate communities.
It is so easy to forget where we were 20years ago as the world faced the destructive power of HIV/AIDS. Effective anti-retroviral medications accessible to all were just on the horizon and millions of people across the globe were dying. Families across the world watched as their parents and children were dying within years of contracting the virus. In Canada, the epidemic was still being felt in communities like Kamloops where people had to wait until they were sick enough to access medication and living with the virus was something that few would talk about openly. Shame and discrimination were commonplace and thus many lived in the shadows afraid of the repercussions of sharing their torment and fears. Without the voices of people like Cookie and organizations like ASK, many would have remained hidden and abandoned. It took courage then to fight for the dignity and possibility of those who lived with HIV in community and this has always been at the heart of ASK Wellness Society. To stand up for equity and to speak for those who can’t or are afraid to share their voices.
What I describe here could easily be the words of someone living with addictions today and those that work and care about them. This is the climate within many of the communities ASK works within. Words of scorn and shame are shared on social media for those living in addictions and without homes and a sense of hopelessness among many of those who walk in our doors. ASK maybe criticized for helping these people; for providing harm reduction supplies and saving lives, for finding homes when few others will, for offering access to health services that are hard to obtain, and for providing employment opportunities for those who have not worked in decades. Many of those we work with are consumed by addictions and mental illness and are living feeling hopeless. These conditions can lead the kindest and most considerate to act in destructive and selfish ways and thus these folks can be difficult to support. Finding compassion while promoting personal accountability is how we have approached our work; something Cookie would support.
There are lessons to be learned from the HIV/AIDS movement that can be applied to the challenges we face during this addiction’s crisis. Organizations like ASK must continue to promote inclusive, compassionate, and accountable communities; something the agency did in the early 1990’s when it was formed. Champions like Cookie are needed in the days ahead who believe in people, who believe their voice matters and who aren’t afraid to say they will never give up on the possibility that addictions can be treated and that everybody deserves a home.
On this day, Word AIDS Day, I extend my gratitude to Cookie Reimer and all those who fight for social justice. No one gets left behind…
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