180 Years of Love and Caring at Hillsides
Children Come and Go, but the Commitment of the Staff Lasts
By Alison Bell
Stephanie Castillo hasn’t lived at Hillsides for more than 20 years.
Yet it still feels like home.
When she visits, which she does regularly, she makes sure to see one person in particular: childcare counselor Lucy Garabedian.
“Lucy was the first person to nurture me,” says Castillo, 38, who lived at Hillsides between the ages of 10 and 15. “I consider her my mom.”
Castillo is one of many alumni who come back to see “Momma Lucy,” as Garabedian is universally called, as well as to visit other long-time Hillsides employees. Often, these employees were among, if not the, most instrumental people in the former residents’ childhoods.
An Anomaly in a Changing Industry
Hillsides, founded in 1913 and headquartered in Pasadena, provides residential treatment services annually for 125 children, among other programs. Its Pasadena campus also includes a therapeutic residential and day school, Hillsides Education Center, that some of the residents attend.
The agency began as an orphanage, but over the years became a safe and stable residence for children in foster care or who for other reasons, could not live at home.
Currently, the foster care field is in the midst of a dramatic change. While children used to spend years in therapeutic group homes like Hillsides, today, children stay for much shorter durations, with the emphasis on reunification with a child’s family and community.
Despite this industry-wide shift, some things at Hillsides stay the same – a core of committed long-term staff members.
While some agencies see a worker turnover rate of as high as 90 percent per year, at Hillsides, 100 of the 416-person staff has been here for 5 -10 years and 86 have been on staff for 10 – 30 or more years.
“We are proud of all our staff, but even more so, of those who have spent years day in and day out turning around the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and youth in our society,” says Hillsides Chief Executive Officer Joseph M. Costa. “Employees like these are the heart of Hillsides, and exemplify our mission to create lasting change.”
They are also the “extreme exception,” in the child welfare industry, according to Bruce Saltzer, the executive director of the Association of Community Human Services Agencies, which represents more than 85 nonprofit community agencies in child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice services. These jobs are a huge responsibility, a lot of stress, and typically low wages, he says. “To stay this long, people really have to care about what they do and be good at it.”
Saltzer also gives credit to Hillsides for fostering an environment where people want to stay for their entire careers.
180 Years of Service
Recently, Garabedian and five other staff members with over 23 years experience each at Hillsides were interviewed. Together the six equal 180 years of service. Their collective voices prove again and again how much they “care about what they do.”
Melvyn Washington, a school liaison who advocates for the education rights of Hillsides children who attend local public schools, began his career at the agency 32 years ago as a childcare worker. He explains his commitment to Hillsides this way: “I’m an overachiever. Everyone always says, ‘if you can save one kid, you’ve done your job.’ Well, I’m going to save as many kids as I can.”
He regards each child as the most important one on the planet, and he expects the same from everyone else when negotiating a child’s educational plan. “I always tell the schools, you treat my kids like Sasha and Malia [President Obama‘s daughters], and we’ll get along just great,” he says.
Rob Wherley, a teacher and reading specialist at the school who has worked at Hillsides for 23 years, has similar feelings of dedication to the population he serves. “I have such a heart for what I do.” he says. “Kids in foster care have such a need; they deserve everything we can give them.”
“Everything We Can Give”
Garabedian, who has worked in the residential cottages for 35 years, gives to the children by showering them with unconditional love. “I love them on the good days, I love them on the bad days,” she says. “I always make them feel special.”
She currently cares for 10 girls, ages 12 – 19, who live in Hillsides Canyon Cottage. She guides them through their daily routines with an eye toward building their futures.
“I invest in the children, and help give them the tools they need to survive once they leave Hillsides,” she says. She estimates she’s touched the lives of some 500 – 600 children throughout the years.
Her investment in Castillo certainly paid off. Castillo says that Garabedian provided her with the mothering to become emotionally stable and the drive to become financially secure. She recalls how at Hillsides, Garabedian helped her start an on-campus business washing staff’s cars. “This established my first taste of independence,” says Castillo. By age 17, Castillo was supporting herself and today she is a successful manager at Rockport Health Care Services in Los Angeles.
Wherley has used his talents as a singer/songwriter to develop a music program for Hillsides. Every four months, he creates a new band comprised of students from the school. “I’ve seen a lot of transformations with children through music,” he says. “It’s a joy to see a kid with low-self esteem get a boost from learning a song and performing it in a concert with a fog machine and lights.”
Wherley also runs an innovative one-on-one reading program, Reading Rocks!, for low-achieving readers. What began with a few children being tutored at a picnic table outside the campus library has blossomed to a vibrant network of 32 students, 23 student tutors, and 10 adult tutors. Over the three years the program has been in existence, each child in the program has improved by at least one grade level and some by as many as three.
One of Wherley’s success stories is Marcell Jones, 11, who has not only learned to read through the program but is now a reading coach for two classmates and a class assistant for his teacher. “It’s fun building up other kids skills,” says Jones. “It makes me more confident, too.”
Carolyn Clegg, a resource assistant who has worked for 36 years at Hillsides and blessed with what one child calls a “loving grandma” personality, wields her influence from a cozy office filled with books, games, and art supplies where children in the school who need an extra dose of nurturing can drop by for some “Carolyn” time. “The kids have a safe place here,” she says.
The children feel secure just being in Clegg’s presence. One student, Brendan*, 13, sits with her every day after school as he waits for the bus. “It makes me look forward to the end of the day,” he says. “It helps just knowing there is someone I can talk to who cares about me.”
The “Reward of the Little Things”
Research on mental health providers has discovered that at any given time, between 21 and 67 percent of workers may be experiencing high levels of burn out, according to a recent article published in Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research. This can include compassion fatigue, which is when caregivers become so preoccupied with the suffering of others that it creates secondary stress for them.
Given these statistics, along with the high turnover rate in the industry, how do these employees find the grit required for the job?
This is a question Clegg wrestled with her very first week of work when she started out as a childcare worker in 1980. The children she was working with had experienced so much abuse and trauma, she didn’t know if she could bear their suffering. “I walked around with a letter of resignation in my pants’ pocket for six months because every day I was going to resign,” she recalls.
One day, however, the note got destroyed in the wash. “That was the end of it,” she says. She realized that despite her initial hesitation, she belonged at Hillsides because the children needed her.
Campus Supervisor Joseph (Jo Jo) White, who has been with Hillsides for 28 years, compares the job with combat. “I may not win every battle, but I can win the war,” he says.
For him, winning the war means “helping kids get better.” One way he does this is to encourage children to make healthy choices even when they’re feeling frustrated or angry at what life has thrown at them. What has sustained him throughout the years, he says, is the “reward of the little things,” like “being able to see the kids drop their walls and allow people to help them.”
Briana Elliott, 26, who lived at Hillsides from 2003-2005 and now volunteers there, says that White helped her tremendously. “He was my go-to person whenever I had an issue,” she says. “He had this incredibly calm presence-- you could yell and scream and he’d stay cool, never get upset. He was also a good listener, and that’s hard to find.”
Elliott credits staff members like White for helping her heal from an abusive past that included 10 different homes before coming to Hillsides at age 13. “At Hillsides, the staff gave me the guidance I needed to learn that I am good, that I can be somebody,” she says. “This was the first place where I felt like I could grow in a positive, not negative, way.”
It’s feedback like this from Elliott and other former residents that also helps off-set stress.
“My goal is always to have the client realize that I helped them grow, even if that comes years later down the road,” says school liaison Washington. “Sometimes the ones you least expect it will call and say, ‘Wow, you really had an impact on me and you did it by example and because you cared.’ That really makes me love what I do.”
Still another way the staff avoids burn out is by finding new challenges on the job. “The kids are always changing, so there’s always something fresh and new,” says Rob DaSilva, who started out as a life guard at the campus pool in 1990 and is now a campus supervisor.
He also finds the children a constant source of inspiration. ”When I think about what it took for me to get where I am in life and these children have so much less support, it makes me rethink the challenges I face in my own life,” he says.
Looking toward the future, these Hillsides veterans continue to defy the statistics by looking ahead to more years at Hillsides. What keeps them here is the same motivating force that led them to the agency in the first place: “The children,” says Clegg. “It’s all about the children.”
*First name only given for privacy reasons.