The Heart of Gold Country: Janice O’Brien, driven to help those in need |

The Heart of Gold Country: Janice O’Brien, driven to help those in need

Growing up on the family farm in Wisconsin, Janice O’Brien once asked her father if he would give the land to her so she could build an orphanage.

“I think I was 12 years old,” she said. “He actually placated me, walking the grounds as I came up with my whole plan.”

That drive to help people in need has never really left O’Brien, who is now 73 years old and continues her lifelong commitment to community here in Nevada County.

She first heeded her calling by becoming a nun and serving God through her work at a convent for 13 years.

“I took my perpetual vows, which means forever,” O’Brien said. “At the time I decided to leave, I had to petition the Pope, actually.

“I really did want to be a nun, but at sometime I outgrew it – and that’s the best way I can put it.”

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She says she couldn’t help but feel she could be doing more to help disadvantaged people. Soon after leaving the convent, she said she worked in outreach programs with motorcycle gangs in Milwaukee, Wis., and helping inner city youth obtain jobs.

Upon marrying her husband, Jim, she became a mother to his three children, and eventually three more foster children, followed by their own child together.

Before moving to Nevada County in 1999, the O’Briens had worked and lived in the Bay Area. Jim served as an executive in management and sales training, while Janice began her own business, “Conscious Dreaming.”

Her work centered on helping people develop creativity and imagination through techniques she learned from a woman who taught “wakeful dreaming.”

“It’s more than daydreaming,” she said. “It’s the ability to really focus … and the shifting of belief systems.”

She occasionally still presents seminars on the topic, for which she worked with nurses and children in the Bay Area and also traveled to Australia, Bangkok and across the U.S. Her work also led her to organize a five-day peace conference at Stanford in 2001.

“Our theme was ‘Economy, as though the Earth matters; community, as though every person matters; and daily life, as though spirit,” she said.

Shortly after arriving in Nevada County, the couple put their retirement plans on hold because their grandchildren needed them.

O’Brien said her son and daughter-in-law were dealing with addiction issues and could not care for their three children, ages 5, 3 and 16 months.

“We took them and it changed our life dramatically,” she said.

Because of the substance abuse, O’Brien said she could not take her son and daughter-in-law into her home along with their children, meaning they were living homeless after moving here from Tacoma, Wash.

In trying to find a place for her son and daughter-in-law to stay, she learned there was no homeless shelter in western Nevada County. She then joined Utah Phillips and Joanna Robinson, along with others, to eventually found what is now known as Hospitality House.

Twenty-two local churches joined the effort and now provide shelter for homeless people.

“It’s wonderful,” O’Brien said. “This community is just incredible in that way.”

While she was serving on the Hospitality House board for six years, stepping aside in 2010, the urgency of providing shelter to those in need again came front and center when her daughter-in-law went missing over a four-year period.

It wasn’t until her remains were found in 2009 that the family had any semblance of closure.

“I resigned from the board because I wanted to give more attention to the children, and I felt like I’d given a lot to Hospitality House,” O’Brien said, also noting an interest in finding solutions for people not served by the organization, due to Hospitality House’s zero tolerance on substance abuse or because they own a dog.

When William Kelly, a local homeless man died due to exposure on a freezing-cold night in early 2011, O’Brien got back to work on the homeless issue.

She said she joined Nevada City Councilwoman Reinette Senum and others in creating Sierra Roots, a nonprofit with a mission to find a place for homeless and low-income people to get help with housing or job training.

“It’s a huge project, but it’s coming together,” she said. “We know how this community works together so well and people want to help.”

And, of course, she’s counted among that group, as she continues her lifelong commitment to helping people in need – which began all those years ago with her Midwestern dream of opening an orphanage.

“It’s just my nature. I’m a problem-solver, a person who wants to get out and help,” she said. “When I do see a need, I respond. Sometimes I have to sit on my hands so I don’t volunteer.

“It seems like I’ve had my orphanage now, so to speak, and I’ve done my work with children.”

To contact City Editor Brian Hamilton, email or call (530) 477-4249.

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