Hilltop leader takes ‘sledgehammer’ to problems

Sally Schaefer relishes a good crisis.

Under her various leadership roles at Hilltop and as head of the organization since 1998, Schaefer expanded the nonprofit organization’s programs, unapologetically staring down and fixing many of the community’s unmet needs.

Schaefer, whom friends call “Sal,” is described as focused, but in more blunt terms is someone who takes a sledgehammer to problems rather than pecking away at them.

“I love seeing a problem coming over the net like a tennis ball and whacking it right back,” she said by phone Thursday. “It helps to be a psychiatric nurse, because there’s nothing you could say or do that would shock me.”

Mike Stahl, chief executive officer of Hilltop, had worked with Schaefer for years and took the helm in August when Schaefer stepped down. Schaefer officially retires April 1.

“She’s always credited as a great visionary, but she’s not a let’s-sit-around-and-talk-about-things kind of person,” Stahl said. “She’s about let’s do it. She saw possibilities everywhere and was not afraid to jump at them and make them successful.”

Others may describe Schaefer differently, as a headstrong woman who, when provoked, punctuates sentences with a litany of choice words.

“I learned long ago that I don’t have any control how people feel about me,” Schaefer said. “You can have an opinion about me. What’s important to me is to have my work respected.”

Her life’s work can be summed up by how she coins herself, or the name of her next venture, the nonprofit Professional Meddler.

Schaefer, 66, tackled the community-needs dilemma at Hilltop largely through a personal lens. After having three children, she adopted a child who had been abused, and she now has two grandchildren who are autistic.

“I saw how people have a really rough go of it,” she said.

“I saw how incredibly devastating it can be to one minute being a basketball player to the next thing you know is you’re drooling on yourself,” she added about the life-changing impacts of head trauma.

Hilltop’s goal never was to expand for the sake of getting bigger. If another agency could do a job better, the nonprofit got out of the way.

Hilltop withdrew from a hospice program when it, St. Mary’s Hospital and what is now Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado were trying to accomplish similar aims.

The agency did step in to help Family Health West in Fruita restructure its organization. It also offered a funding source for a few years for the nonprofit Girls on the Run, while the program encouraging girls to develop healthy habits was getting its legs.

Hilltop played a hand in helping birth Home Now, a quickly arranged, multi-agency effort that provided housing to 45 families this winter. The group has donated land near the Opportunity Center to Mesa County Partners. Staff work behind the scenes addressing quality-of-life issues, such as developing a coalition to identify ways to attract more primary-care doctors to the area during an extreme doctor shortage a few years ago.

Hilltop officials see their success in being honest about the community’s needs. Early on, they realized that duplicating services merely weakened a program’s potential benefit. A need had to be defined as something that would benefit a group of people and not an isolated case.

“I’ve honestly told more than a few businesses they don’t deserve to live,” Schaefer said. “It was never about how big Hilltop can get. If anybody else can do this business better, I’ll give that to them.”

Schaefer, a registered nurse, most recently grasped the helm of Colorado West Mental Health’s psychiatric hospital, the Western Slope Mental Health Stabilization Center. Hilltop donated Schaefer’s time as she was picked as a temporary director when the hospital faced an ultimatum from the state to either restructure or be shut down in two weeks.

She now works as a consultant to the state to untangle Medicaid issues and is serving as an expert legal witness in long-term care.

Under leadership from Schaefer and her predecessor, Denny Stahl, from 1970 to 1998, Hilltop grew to 540 employees. It reported assets of more than $60 million last year. Some of its programs are subsidized by other programs, and cutbacks on grants have made times tougher to staff some positions, Mike Stahl said.

Stahl said future goals for the organization may include expanding its Life Adjustment Program, which offers residential and treatment services to brain-injured individuals. They further want to expand services so seniors can stay in their homes as long as possible.

Mike Stahl is the son of Denny Stahl, who spearheaded the building and operation of the rehabilitation hospital.

Mike Stahl worked with Schaefer for five years as president of the group before assuming the head of the organization. He had worked with Schaefer for 25 years, including a stretch in California to oversee a program for brain-injured individuals, a mirror of Hilltop’s program.

“She decided about five years ago what her retirement date would be and had a steady plan in place for a transition,” Mike Stahl said. “No one does succession planning or has that much forethought. It just shows that her heart and soul are in Hilltop.”


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