By: Sheila Mason Issue: Transformation Section: Academia
Hillcrest Educational Centers
Locals have written about Gerard “Jerry” Burke’s successes before. They have highlighted his drive and commitment to community, and especially his leadership and ability to steer his agency in a turbulent economy. Spending time with him, you notice his deep traditional knowledge, and he deftly interprets his world through it. This complements his milestones, formal degrees, impressive professional affiliations and even the local college scholarship that bears his name. His story is Hillcrest’s story, and it is worth sharing outside of the Berkshires.
Burke is the president and CEO of Hillcrest Educational Centers, Inc. (HEC), a private, not-for-profit school for youth with extreme behaviors, located in the tranquil hills of western Massachusetts. Although a culturally rich area that boasts renowned institutions such as Tanglewood, Williams College, the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, it is still searching for a sustainable workforce identity. General Electric and Sprague Electric pulled out in the late 1980s, leaving a wake of malaise, empty storefronts and sagging employment opportunities. In subsequent years art communities and niche companies have spawned exciting growth. Strategies to attract more business and industry are well underway. Burke is an integral part of these efforts and is heavily engaged in the community in addition to his work at Hillcrest. Of the eleven committees he serves on, the most notable are chairman of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Executive Committee of the Berkshire Business Roundtable and a member/director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. With close to 500 employees and a $25 million budget, HEC is one of the top ten companies in the county. Employee satisfaction is evident as a majority of the senior team have worked at HEC in various capacities for fifteen years or longer, and in Burke’s case since it was founded 26 years ago. What’s more, when talking to the senior staff, you get a sense of pride and loyalty—one that is impressive and palpable. In fact, during the Hillcrest Annual Campaign—the annual fundraiser—employees raised more than $50,000 for the fifth consecutive year.
Before there was Hillcrest, there was Avalon, a struggling for-profit residential school for troubled youth that eventually succumbed to financial pressures in the mid-80s, along with other private schools in the area. Enter Burke in 1985. He, along with the Hillcrest Hospital Foundation board, acquired Avalon and formed Hillcrest Educational Centers, Inc. (a separate entity from Hillcrest hospital, but still the cause of local name confusion today). With little resources and an appetite for risk, slowly and quietly, the board of directors with Burke’s leadership turned the school into the nonprofit gem it is today.
Hillcrest’s main priority fits in one sentence—to serve children and families in desperate need of social services. Formally stated, the mission is, “to facilitate the social, emotional, intellectual, and physical growth of students through the development of new skills that will enable them to succeed in their home community.” They have truly evolved into a last hope for hundreds of people, and have built a successful reputation on meeting this challenge. This is in part due to their constant mode of self-reflection and self-improvement—or what Burke calls, “The Hillcrest dialogue.”
He recently instituted a Cornell University training program. This $160,000 investment replaced the previously homegrown physical intervention model, which decreased physical interventions and related costs and improved overall safety of staff and students. To further raise standards, HEC instituted a “Learn More/Earn More” incentive program to train, motivate and retain valuable staff. They also maintain a license from the Department of Early Education and Care and certification by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in addition to a prestigious accreditation by the National Joint Commission in Behavioral Health Care. When talking with direct care workers, teachers, clinicians and administrative staff, you quickly realize they feel equally invested in the Hillcrest mission and are supported here, beyond the paycheck. The senior team does this by keeping staff informed of company news through inclusive and transparent staff meetings, the intranet and printed publications.
The residential school program serves youth and young adults who have been severely neglected and abused, have witnessed abuse or are otherwise in need of critical therapeutic care. Referred to as high-risk and high-demand children, they have trouble functioning in a traditional setting for a variety of reasons, and many have lived in unsuccessful foster or group homes or had stays in psychiatric hospitals. The goal is to get these youth stabilized, treated and returned back to their home communities, families (if appropriate) and schools. A stay can be anywhere from nine months to several years. Most do not have emotionally supportive parents, nor otherwise engaged family members who could intervene. Often, parents are struggling on many levels themselves—they are apt to be single, financially and psychologically unstable, abusive or victims of abuse, and to have issues with drug and alcohol addictions. Referrals come to Hillcrest from state and welfare agencies and school systems in Berkshire County and greater Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and other areas in the Northeast. Before arriving at Hillcrest, it’s not uncommon that a student has been turned away from at least five other non-Massachusetts agencies—the result of a tight economy and the pressure on state politicians to keep monies in house, while trying to do what’s best for the child.
Reading the background of an HEC student is an experience you will not soon forget. It will turn your emotions from sadness to anger and outrage, and back to sadness all within one paragraph. The ugliest and most frightening words in our language are used—victim of rape, suffered broken bones, witnessed repeated domestic violence, starvation, verbally and physically assaulted, attempted suicide, and severe trauma—these are just a few descriptors. These children have been betrayed in egregious ways and have experienced repeated failure. It’s a failure that breeds yet more failure along with a sharp mistrust of others, a state of fear and an inability to cope, if left untreated. Studies show that the earlier the child enters treatment, whether from long- or short-term abuse, the better their chances of healing. A staff psychiatrist summed it up neatly: “If you had a physical wound and delayed treatment, the greater your chances would be of ancillary problems including scarring. Same is true with our minds. The earlier we reach a victim of abuse, the better their chances of leading a productive life.” This is the crux of Hillcrest’s work.
They operate three residential campuses and a day academy for approximately 106 students. The residential campuses are all former summer cottages, lovely Gilded-Age mansions once owned by wealthy New York and Boston residents who wanted to escape the city heat. The buildings and grounds still maintain the glory of the past with open fields, high ceilings, ornate woodwork, expansive fireplaces and inviting libraries. They are still respites—places that mirror the Hillcrest motto “Heal, Learn and Thrive.” Each child has a customized and comprehensive education and treatment plan, and like any other public or private school, students must pass mandated exams before moving to the next level.
Highpoint campus, in Lenox, Mass., cares for male students in the treatment of abusive sexual behavior in addition to aggression, self-injurious actions and emotional deregulation. Most have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities and mild development or neurological challenges as well. The Fernbrook program, housed next door to Hightop, treats young men with extreme psychiatric, emotional and behavior disorders such as fire setting—and common with victims of sexual abuse. Hillcrest Centers, also in Lenox, works with young women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse and trauma. These young women can be severely aggressive, sexually reactive, or self-injurious. Most have been in psychiatric hospitals, and many have moderate to serious learning disabilities. In Great Barrington, the Brookside Campus serves as an intensive treatment unit that provides nonmedical stabilization and diagnostic services for youth.
What’s striking when walking the campuses, aside from the high student-staff ratio—one-to-one in most cases—isn’t the occasional verbal or physical outburst, but that despite what these students have been through they look like our, or our neighbors’ children. They are energetic, clean, dressed appropriately and healthy looking. Some are chatting happily with peers or staff and are busily engaged in class and outdoor sport activities. These children look hopeful, and you feel optimistic knowing they are on a better path with people who understand their needs.
Over the years, Burke has proactively worked in the community with troubled youth—even through the various financial and population fluctuations. In fact, Burke used to run a group home for children but closed it in the late 1990s when it became a liability. Near the same time, he saw a decline in adolescent girls needing services and discontinued that program for a few years until the population rebounded two years ago. Today, HEC has a dedicated girls’ campus and program.
During the 1990s there was also a huge philosophical shift in the human services field that opined that children younger than ten should be kept out of residential care. To keep serving that population, and also others who only needed a day program structure, Hillcrest opened Housatonic Day Academy in Pittsfield in 1995. To serve the students and families of a fast-growing autistic population HEC created autistic-specific programming for both residential and day programs. They invested $40,000 in 2008 for a new addition and an autistic-specific program at the Housatonic Day Academy, and in July 2011, they also created an autistic-specific residential program on the Hillcrest Center Campus with a capital investment of $359,000.
As Burke carefully navigates the predicted market challenges ahead, he and the Hillcrest leadership also remain committed to opportunities for development and growth. Researching and anticipating trends, much like a for-profit business model, are what’s keeping them relevant and sharp, and only adds value to their current mission and programs. In testament to this, Hillcrest Dental Care was founded in 1985 originally to provide care to the children of Hillcrest, for whom access was a major obstacle. Since its establishment, the clinic has steadily expanded and now serves close to 9,000 patients from the region. In keeping with the mission, the majority of patients served are individuals and families without previous access to regular care, war veterans and recipients of Mass Health Care. They now employ five full-time dentists who use eight treatment rooms and state-of-the-art equipment; there are plans to open a satellite office to reach others who lack access.
Hillcrest Psychological Services is another community-based program that specializes in high-risk assessments and evaluation services for families and schools in Berkshire County. In another very recent change, Hillcrest formalized an affiliation with Berkshire County Kids’ Place in 2011, a fully accredited Children’s Advocacy Center for child abuse victims and their non-offending family members in Pittsfield—again, staying true to the mission of helping children and families and advocating on their behalf.
Burke says, “By exploring collaborations and partnerships with organizations in the region while emphasizing the diversification of our services, programs and clients, we will provide an array of beneficial community-based services for those in need, that extend and strengthen the Hillcrest legacy.”
Sheila Mason is the Director of Development and Community Outreach at Hillcrest Educational Centers. Prior to Hillcrest, Mason worked in college relations and development.