Hilltop programs ease problems from beginning to end of life

Barbara Burch, director of the Life Adjustment Program at Hilltop, receives a hug from a longtime client. She works with brain-injured adults.

Five-year-old Makenzie Bott, a high-functioning autistic child, acts in a mirror at a classroom of Kiddin’ Around Learning Center. The preschool prepares children for success in kindergarten. The classrooms have a mix of children at all levels of development. After several years at the school, Makenzie’s vocabulary has increased greatly and she interacts socially with others.


Hilltop celebrations

Tuesday is Hilltop’s 60th anniversary. Hilltop programs will have celebrations on their respective campuses for clients and staff.

The public is invited to a gathering from 4–7 p.m. Friday at Hilltop’s office, 1331 Hermosa Ave. Staff, clients and the public are invited to wish former Chief Executive Officer Sally Schaefer well, as she enters retirement.

Years of incarceration and frustration were nearly certain for Lucas Schott, if help hadn’t intervened.

The 21-year-old was 10 when he began to rebel, hit his sister, hurt himself, threaten suicide and fly into a rage if he was denied anything.

As a child, Schott was enrolled in Hilltop’s temporary Pediatric Alternative Treatment Unit, and later in Residential Youth Services, which is housing and supervision for youths ages 12 to 21.

A Palisade High School graduate and Mesa State College student, Schott now works for Hilltop. He is the first former client to be hired as staff. He also is one example of how Hilltop’s programs are changing lives for the better every day in the Grand Valley.

Talk about a 180-degree turnaround.

“They saw the good in me, I didn’t see it,” Schott said about his experience. “It wasn’t just me. My mom learned how to be stricter, and my sister learned not to act like our mother. It helped our entire family.”

Building blocks

Hilltop, a nonprofit organization, runs so many programs, from pre- natal to end-of-life care, that many people aren’t aware of its sweeping scope. As it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, officials took a look back at how the organization evolved.

“People still call us and ask about hours for the pool at the rehab hospital,” Hilltop’s Chief Executive Officer Mike Stahl said. “A lot of people have heard of Hilltop. The new face of Hilltop is we’re meeting a wide span of needs. We’ve really created the transition to a path of self-sufficiency.”

Hilltop started in 1950 with two employees as the Mesa County Society for Crippled Children & Adults, focusing on outpatient rehabilitation for polio patients. However, the creation of a polio vaccine five years later limited the need for polio therapy.

From 1970 to 1996, the organization broadened its aim, offering occupational therapy and speech therapy. Hilltop built a rehabilitation hospital, and its work force swelled to 450 employees.

In 1996, Hilltop’s leaders sold the hospital to St. Mary’s Hospital to avoid duplication of services. The rehabilitation hospital is now the St. Mary’s Life Center.

Up until 1996, Hilltop had created and operated youth services; the Life Adjustment Program, offering residential services and treatment to brain-injured individuals; and the assisted-living services at The Atrium.

After selling the hospital, the organization found itself at a crossroads. Leaders questioned whether the group had completed its mission of offering community-based services. It pressed ahead, and from 1997 to 2009, it expanded its assisted-living services to include The Commons and The Fountains.

Hilltop merged with The Resource Center, offering a broad base of services for new mothers, children’s services and education, youth services, counseling for the jobless and help for victims of domestic violence. Those programs are included under the Child & Family Center, the Workforce Center and Latimer House.

Hilltop’s programs also have expanded to Delta, Montrose and Ouray counties.


It’s likely either you or someone you know in the Grand Valley has been helped by a Hilltop program. Officials estimate the programs assist 17,000 people a year, and many clients take advantage of more than one program.

Jennifer Bott has a much more sociable and happy child today, thanks to Hilltop’s Kiddin’ Around day care and preschool services.

Just two years ago, at another facility, Bott’s daughter Makenzie hated to go to day care, spending her days hiding in a corner, steering clear from all of the other children.

When Bott picked her up after work, Makenzie’s eyes usually would be red from crying all day.

That has changed for the 5-year-old, as staff members at Kiddin’ Around include her in activities where she plays with children her own age. At the former child-care facility, Makenzie, who has been diagnosed with autism, was often left alone or with much younger children.

“When we moved here, I was so relieved that my kid is not going to be ostracized,” Bott said. “They work with her to overcome the challenges. She doesn’t cry to go to day care. Now she’s happy to go.”

In another part of town, Barbara Neff is learning to communicate with the help of a talking computer screen hooked to her wheelchair. Neff is a client at Hilltop’s Life Adjustment Program, a residential community for brain-injured adults.

After sustaining a brain injury in an accident, Barbara lost much of her ability to speak.

She is one of 72 adults with varying levels of abilities who live on the campus at 14th Street and Wellington Avenue.

Neff’s mother, Isabelle Neff, said it was by chance she found the perfect home for her daughter. Isabelle Neff had lived with her daughter at their California home and then tried placing her in a nursing home, but neither situation worked well.

Now while visiting her daughter at the Life Adjustment Program, Isabelle Neff rents a room nearby at The Commons.

Clients are free to live as they please, eating when they like, and they can participate in outdoor outings. They meet to discuss their desires for everyday life and holiday entertainment. Lobster and steak were served for Christmas.

Staff provide therapy and support services, but they also are instructed that clients are in control.

“The whole thing is geared toward the individual,” Isabelle Neff said. “She likes it out here. We’re trying to get Barb back to her healthy self.”


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