25 years of Life Adjustment
Hilltop’s Life Adjustment Program celebrates its 25th year anniversary starting at 10 a.m. Saturday with a Luau at the Bacon Campus, 1405 Wellington Ave.
By AMY HAMILTON
When Ralph Chavez came to live at Hilltop’s Life Adjustment Program 25 years ago, he sported long, dark hair. The former oil worker had been loaded with cash, living fast when he was driving drunk, crashed and suffered a brain injury.
Now, Chavez, with salt-and-pepper hair, still looks fit and offers a firm handshake from his wheelchair. He, with a small group of others, sometimes give talks to people who have been charged with driving while intoxicated.
While Chavez has aged over the years, so has the program that celebrates a quarter of a century on Saturday with an all-day party for residents, friends and family.
Sought as a model for other agencies around the nation attempting to provide housing and care for residents with brain injuries, Hilltop’s program has been around long enough to figure out what works, said Director Barb Burch.
“We started in a two-story building with a central hallway,” she said. “That was kind of our learning lab.”
At its start, program organizers modeled the program around rehabilitation. The thinking was that residents could be retrained to resume some semblance of their former lives and eventually be released to live again with family. That experiment failed, causing undue frustration for residents, and only one of eight residents returned home to family. Helping people with brain injuries was new territory. Before major advances in technology and health care, people with brain injuries may not have lived long, Burch said.
Early organizers also played with the idea of housing residents with brain injuries in the same areas as those without injuries. Hilltop first acquired one of the apartment buildings at the Bacon Campus, using one apartment as an office. While residents of the nearby apartment houses weren’t bothered by the arrangement, the set-up was uncomfortable for the brain-injured residents.
“I’m not like the rest of them, but I appreciate being around other people who are undergoing what I’m going through,” Burch explained about the feeling among residents at the time. “They very much care for each other.”
Hilltop has since acquired all of the one-level apartment buildings in the complex and built a fitness center, central office and meeting space at 14th Street and Wellington Avenue.
Though residents are not pressed into therapy, some take on the challenge themselves. After being in a car accident, one local 22-year-old woman came to the program after being housed for a time in a nursing home. Nursing home staff said the woman couldn’t walk, although there she was last week walking between parallel bars with the help of a therapist. Another woman who couldn’t bend her right knee walked around the campus with a walker. If she were confined to a nursing home, the woman would be encouraged to use a wheelchair for fear of her falling.
“Nursing homes fill an essential piece of life but they’re not for everybody,” Burch said.
Residents’ past lives range from being an airline pilot to a construction worker. Some people speak multiple languages. The 71 residents from around the country represent a broad range of life experiences. Some were injured in motorcycle crashes, by medical conditions, surgeries or in combat. Their ages range from 18 to 65, with the most common demographic being 18-year-old men.
“There’s certainly a level of frustration,” Burch said. “They say ‘I hate it here.’ They hate their condition. They know what life was like otherwise.”
Because residents’ abilities vary, they are free to roam, find work and spend their days as they please. They can choose their own housemates and choose when they’d like to move into another apartment. Some residents have become couples after coming to the facility.
Often new staff must be retrained, Burch said, with the understanding that the residents, not the staff, are in control.
“We understand that people like to choose what they eat, who they eat it with, and when,” Burch said. “Some people are morning people and some people are night people.”
Residents also enjoy a host of activities, one of the most memorable is having their own section at Country Jam.
It’s not a bad gig, either, for staff members said client manager Lisa Woods.
“We were doing karaoke. How many other jobs do you know where you get to do karaoke at your job?” she said.