NCREDIBLE CONTRIBUTION: Annette and Jean-Pierre Reifler each received an OAM in this year’s Australia Day honours.
NCREDIBLE CONTRIBUTION: Annette and Jean-Pierre Reifler each received an OAM in this year’s Australia Day honours.

Powerful union recognised in Australia Day honours

WHEN an ex-alcoholic from Switzerland and a young goody-two-shoes met in a Coffs Harbour church in 1972 it was a match made in heaven.

The union would prosper to see the creation of the region's Sherwood Cliffs Christian Rehabilitation Centre at Glenreagh which has helped hundreds of people struggling with addiction.

And now the work of Annette and Jean-Pierre Reifler has been recognised with an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in this year's Australia Day honours.

The couple share a deep Christian faith. They can both recall the time they read the bible and something just clicked.

For Jean-Pierre it was after fleeing a life of crime and addiction in Switzerland, ending up in a group home in Kings Cross.

"I saw a short promotional video for Australia, a land flowing with milk and honey and it said there were three women for every man so I thought: they need me," Jean-Pierre recalls.

Still drinking heavily he had a near-death experience while swimming at Maroubra.

"I nearly drowned and when I was unconscious I heard a voice and it called my name in Swiss and it said you're going to be lost in eternity...I was going to hell."

A friend urged him to read his bible but he initially resisted.

"I thought that kind of thing was for old ladies and kids. My Dad always said God was invented by man to make money.

"But when I read the bible it hit me in the face. I went to sleep and woke up totally born again."

For Annette she was in Japan as a young exchange student simply in need of something to read.

"I was just desperate to read something in English. I was actually exploring Buddhism and other religions at the time but I had taken my grandparents bible with me just as a memento."

After returning to Coffs Harbour she started attending services at the Uniting Church and that's where she met Jean-Pierre who had moved up from Sydney.

They married soon after and very quickly found their calling.

"We started picking up all these troubled young people on the highway but then we both decided we can't just pick them up and provide for them and put them back on the street," Annette said.

"We realised that we needed to set up a place where people can have time to grow physically, mentally and spirituality."

They started looking for the ideal location and in 1978 purchased the Sherwood Cliffs property, between Corindi and Glenreagh, to set up their vision.

Starting with a converted bus, accommodation was soon upgraded to converted railway carriages and then onto complete houses and dormitory style living quarters.

The rehabilitation centre has the capacity to cater for up to eight single men and two legally married couples (with up to 4 children, aged from birth to 10).

It also operates as a farm providing much of the produce for both centres with an established orchard, dairy, vegetable gardens, chickens and cattle.

They Reiflers refer to those staying at the centre as 'seekers'.

"They're not clients or patients, they're seekers and we're all seeking something in life," Annette said.

Over the years Jean-Paul estimates 800 'seekers' have been through their doors.

In recent years they've also established a Christian Community School for years kindergarten through to year six.

When they first started working with addicts in the early 70s the Reiflers saw mostly marijuana, mushrooms and LSD but now the main issue is ice.

"People are coming in much younger with ice - it's such an explosive, cruel drug hitting harder and quicker," Annette said.

Regulations have also changed dramatically but with their eldest daughter Chantal Kemsley and husband Colin taking over the reins as they move into 'retirement' (although Jean-Paule refuses to use the term) they say they're steering in the right direction.

"There's more accountability and government bureaucracy but a new brush sweeps clean as they say," Annette said.

The couple have six children (two were adopted after their biological mother overdosed) and 20 grandchildren.

They celebrated Australia Day at a community breakfast in Glenreagh then prayed with their congregation at Coffs Harbour Baptist Church.