La Verne Magazine
Hillcrest Homes Rejuvenates the Soul
by Nune Gazdhyan
photography by Summer Herndon
Their faces reveal the conversations: upcoming surprise birthday parties,
places to travel . . . . Olive Kohler, Ferne Schechter, Margaret Reel,
Betty Clague, Lena Willoughby, Dwight Hanawalt and Gwen Smeltzer live a
life of leisure.
What better way to spend the golden years than with 350 of your closest
friends. All of them remember birthdays, go on trips and organize events
on campus, but no one has to worry about waking up early or doing homework.
Hillcrest Homes is an envied place, but it is not for the traditional
college student and often not even for the parents of traditional age students.
It is a place where the average age is 60. In technical terms, it would
be called a retirement home, but do not tell the residents. They are too
busy working, traveling -- enjoying life to the fullest.
"People often call this place 'Alternative Eden,'" says Linda
Harding, director of public relations at Hillcrest Homes.
The Hillcrest campus is tucked away one block from the University of
La Verne. Yes, it is a retirement community, but it is far more than that.
Elderly people being pushed around in wheelchairs, canes, walking sticks,
hand feeding, dependency, loneliness and pity are some of the words that
are usually associated with retirement homes. But scratch all those out,
erase them from memory and forget that they ever existed. Hillcrest is a
place for people to enjoy themselves, to do what they want to, the way they
want to, with no strings attached.
There are usually many celebrations. Parties with rich lemon-flavored,
moist cakes, vibrant friends with good wishes and a grand hall to put it
all together in. Why not indulge in the essence of good times. There are
no lawns to mow, no young crying needy infants to look after; just the pure
pleasure of living life to its fullest.
Take, for example, Ida Howell, who just celebrated her 95th birthday
at Hillcrest. She has lived here for 21 years. But she is still active in
the community. Howell is a member of the Board of Trustees at the University
of La Verne. During her birthday celebration, she shared memories of her
childhood and teenage years through faded black and white pictures. "This
kind of thing happens here all the time. We gather around to share the memories
and show each other that we care," she says.
This year, Hillcrest will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Hillcrest Homes was founded by the members of the Church of the Brethren.
Development at Hillcrest began with residential living cottages. Then, in
1952, Hillcrest opened its doors to the public. Throughout the years, additions
were made to accommodate more people. Today, there are still plans for further
development. Such a glamorous and care-free living does have a price. There
are monthly fees for services and rent, but residents are not complaining.
"Hillcrest never turns down people when their money runs out or they
do not have enough to join the community. There is a special Endowment Fund
that was started by residents for residents to help them with unexpected
situations," says Leona Ikenberry, marketing director.
There is an annual Endowment Dinner in May that benefits the fund. For
attendees, it is a time to get out the dancing shoes, wear a fancy outfit
and dance the night away in an effort to raise money to support the residents
who are in need of financial assistance.
There are also many special interest groups that are formed by residents
to create yet another great excuse to have a grand old time. There is the
Out-to-Lunch Bunch, the Hiking Club, the Quilters, the Jewelers, the Hillcrest
Wanderers, to name a few. There is really no time to be bored unless one
really enjoys the hobby of loneliness. "Hillcrest is not for everyone;
there are occasionally people who come here who leave soon after, but most
people stay," says Lena Willoughby. She and her husband have been residing
at Hillcrest for more than 25 years.
The Willoughbys' mission to Hillcrest was due to a business call. Hillcrest
Director Chuck Cable called and offered them jobs as resident chaplains.
So they packed their bags and moved in. The couple liked Hillcrest, and
their experience was even more enjoyable after they undertook a project
to write down all the residents' names and individual brief histories just
to help them remember names. The interviewing and personal touch soon fostered
many friendships. So, when it came time for them to take a break from working
and start enjoying life, they decided to stay at Hillcrest.
By the way, just because many residents are retired, it does not mean
that they do not work. Often, they have multiple jobs and are well-known
and respected by the community. Life at Hillcrest is always busy. If residents
are not engaged in a special interest group or out on vacation, they are
busy tutoring students from the local boys home, sharing their experiences
with the local girls from the girls home -- or making decisions at city,
school and church meetings. Life after retirement does not mean that these
people are isolated and ready to have nothing to do with society. In fact,
they are a vibrant part of the community.
Adventures abound at Hillcrest. Start with the person: go up to anyone
and ask about her childhood; it is amazing how much things have changed.
His or her past is a great educational and entertainment tool.
Having the opportunity to live in such a community is also similar to
living in university housing. The maintenance is taken care of, but, unlike
college, there is also a laundry service, gourmet food and no early morning
classes to attend. Instead, there are many trips to Farmer's Market in Hollywood,
lunches at restaurants and just plain quality time to catch up with friends.
When taking a stroll on the grounds at Hillcrest, one does not even
realize that it is a retirement community. It is a beautiful place where
the homes are not distinguishable from the surrounding neighborhood. In
fact, it is really hard to determine where Hillcrest ends and the rest of
the world starts.
Hillcrest is also flippantly compared to a fraternity house, but girls
are allowed. There is much energy, togetherness and adventure at Hillcrest.
Many people who reside in the city, upon retiring, move from their homes
just several blocks away to become part of this intimate community. They
make the move to change their lives. Residents say that the retirement
village helps people live a relaxed lifestyle. "Statistics show that
people who live in this type of community live longer than when they are
alone," says Bill Bruns, a resident. He adds, "It isn't all a
cruel, merciless world here." Bruns compares Hillcrest to "an
island where there is mercy with much added."
There are new residents at Hillcrest every year. Evelyn (Bette) Werkman
moved to Hillcrest in 1996. For the past 25 years, she has been active with
Santa Claus, Inc., located in Ontario. The company collects and repairs
donated clothing as well as sewing new items that are distributed to around
4,000 children at Christmas time. Bette says she moved here to be free of
home ownership responsibilities and property management.
Bette is just one of the satisfied residents at Hillcrest. Each person
has his stories and legends to share; often all one has to do is to be willing
to listen and to learn. Many memories and adventures are awaiting at Hillcrest,
and there is always room for more.
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