Story highlights Therapist Anni Bergman spent her lifetime trying to make childhood a better place for children.
Perhaps the most memorable of all of her many heroic acts was a Skype therapy session with a young girl dying of cancer.
You might not think of a decades-long child therapist with ice-melting honesty to rely on for help but the one Anni Bergman did. In her lifetime, Bergman spent hours with children, making sure they’d have a better childhood.
Bergman, who died at the age of 102, spent the majority of her adult life as a therapist working to connect with children in situations that may seem daunting or confusing. She would be there to open up a child’s world, offering them honest, deep answers they needed to explain and understand their thoughts and feelings.
It’s a personal kind of wisdom she received during her time as a child, when her parents divorced, and her mother eventually abandoned her and her sister. In fact, Bergman had to grow up nearly twice over, moving to Hong Kong as a young girl to live with her maternal grandparents, who were also caretakers for his developmentally disabled sister.
“It is a kind of mental theatre that I inherited,” Bergman, who later moved to the United States, told CNN, recalling some of the late ’30s and early ’40s teen horror films she watched in Hong Kong, viewing her favorite characters from stage play performances, and breathing in the dark, isolating atmosphere.
“The scariest movie is always the one where they speak with no dialogue, no people, it just sounds frightening but you can’t taste the people. It’s a strange perspective I hold.”
That perspective led Bergman to a career focused on helping children create better lives for themselves.
At first, Bergman was a fashion model, a waitress, a dancer and a singer, though her true passion for helping children was evident early on. In her early 30s, Bergman began teaching dance and music therapy to children with autism spectrum disorder, as she was given the opportunity to help her kids — who had severe behavioral issues — improve their health through lessons.
The skills she learned as a dancer and singer came into play, as she took many children out to night clubs to interact with other kids and expand their social skills.
After spending 15 years working as a child therapist, Bergman transitioned to a job as a teacher in the Army, which started when the family moved to Georgia in the early 1960s. She dedicated herself to teaching children through song, dancing and role play, and decided to teach three different grade levels within one class.
“I didn’t want them to burn out so I fell in love with my job. My life was totally consumed by the kids.”
It was that life-saving gift that shaped Bergman into the woman she became. One of her teenage students, Paul Pelchen, recalled on CNN how Bergman treated her during hospital visits, always making sure her mood would remain positive, even during difficult times. Pelchen ended up marrying Bergman in 1966 and she became his wife three years later.
Shortly after, Bergman started a nursing school. By 1969, she taught classes at the Atlanta School of Nursing.
But it was during her tenure as a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Army that her life-changing advice had to be adapted. When Bergman returned from her first mission to South Africa in 1968, she realized how much more care she’d need as a United States citizen. That’s when she started assisting the National Security Agency, helping to fill the human void in the wake of the Cold War. She later headed to Germany to see firsthand how the NSA operated, eventually became a supervisor and oversaw their psychological evaluations.
But it wasn’t long before the war and its legacy would finally give her closure.
In a 2010 interview with NPR, Bergman reflected on her Army career, saying, “I feel like I’ve been with a certain tribe for more than two decades.”
While Bergman embraced her new role, it made her realize her four children wanted their mother to continue teaching children, especially as their ages changed over the years. They bought her a singing and dance studio in 1994 and she spent over 20 years working there and helping children.
Finally, in 2001, she was placed on active duty status. In 2018, she retired from the Army with a number of decorations. Her children shared in a news release on CNN that Bergman’s work took her all over the world and treated her clients to “her loving humanity.”
“She was beyond her years of age; she was an angel,” they wrote.