Susan Hillgren is taking the day off today from her full-time, unpaid job. The seventh-born of nine children, she’s spending Christmas with her parents Ken and Harriett Gilbertson, who recently marked their 70th wedding anniversary.
The rest of the year, as on this day, Hillgren lives her faith — lives the ideal of Christmas — with another big family.
The Port Angeles-bred Hillgren runs The Answer for Youth, a center offering everything she and her fellow volunteers can muster: meals, small loans, bus fare, tutoring and spirituality to wayward teenagers and young adults.
The place, a little white former church at 711 E. Second St., is Hillgren’s life, and she its trumpeter.
At 55, Hillgren is a veteran of many a social-service agency — both as a client and as a staff member.
She doesn’t skirt the truth about her past.
“I started drinking at 12,” Hillgren begins. Beer was her drug of choice.
She managed to graduate from Port Angeles High School in 1974. Then she took off for Denver, where a sister lived. She married an Air Force man three years later; they moved to Mountain Home, Idaho, where Hillgren gave birth to her son Joseph in 1979.
Then came a move to Spokane, divorce, remarriage and another move to Belfair in 1984. There, she had three more children: Jake, James and Amanda, who are now 25, 24 and 23, respectively.
Then Hillgren reached a turning point. She knew she had to stop drinking and start parenting.
In October 1989, 20 years to the month before she founded The Answer for Youth, Hillgren got sober. Soon after, she also became a single mother. Her husband, also a hard drinker, left her with four kids — and two jobs, as a waitress and a bus driver.
Hillgren held that all together in Belfair for a few years but then decided to move back home to Port Angeles, where her parents and most of her siblings still lived.
She enrolled in Peninsula College’s criminal justice program, with the intention of becoming a police officer. While studying, she found work cleaning houses and made use of many forms of government aid: Head Start preschool, the Women, Infants and Children, aka WIC, nutrition program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, then the new term for welfare.
She participated in Circle of Life, a family mentoring program at Peninsula Community Mental Health. Healthy Families of Clallam County also came to her aid, helping her cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered while living with an abusive husband.
“God drug me through all of these programs,” Hillgren says, “so I know them from the inside out.”
After deciding to change her emphasis at Peninsula College to chemical dependency counseling, she landed an internship at Clallam County Juvenile Services. She went to work at the detention center, “back in the cells,” five days a week, teaching teenagers about the effects of alcohol and other drug abuse.
“I was really scared at first,” Hillgren admits. “I was afraid of the kids.”
She knew that video cameras were trained on her at all times, but she felt that fear anyway.
“After months and months of seeing the same kids and hearing the same stories — and they weren’t making up their stories — I knew that somebody needed to help take care of them,” she adds.
“I guess I appointed myself.”
Internship done, Hillgren widened her scope. She helped other volunteers serve dinner to street kids on City Pier on Saturday nights; on Wednesdays she packed and handed out sack lunches. She also worked with at-risk girls at what was then Family Planning of Clallam County — now Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest — and taught health classes back at the juvenile detention center.
Hillgren is not afraid of tough kids anymore. And she is the definition of indefatigable. She opened The Answer for Youth center in October 2009 on a prayer — and $1,000 to cover the first month’s rent.
That money, sent in response to letters Hillgren wrote to friends, got her and a team of volunteers into the building. She rallied carpenters and other tradesmen, including her husband of nine years, Rick Hillgren, to renovate the place.
Its doors are now open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3 p.m. till 7 p.m. and Saturday from 4 p.m. till 7 p.m. The center, known as TAFY, has a growing list of free offerings, ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to anger management classes and parenting workshops to coats and toiletries. It’s a place where a homeless teenager or 20-something can take a shower, wash some clothes — and be safe.
TAFY serves homeless and other needy youth, age 13 to 35, who, Hillgren says, are all but invisible in Port Angeles. With funding from local churches, individual donors and a $10,000 federal grant, she notes that the center sees an average of 33 clients per day and 150 unique visitors per month. There are little ones, too: elementary-school-age kids, preschoolers and babes in the arms of their young parents.
The TAFY volunteers turn no one away. Hillgren and crew welcome the young people, drunk or sober, high or clean. Then they talk about options: healthy living, spirituality, setting new career and personal goals. The center has hosted weddings and baby showers, and this Christmas season, paid for eight mother-and-baby portraits by the Sterling Impressions photography studio.
Earlier this month there was a Christmas party, complete with a feast and Santa Claus, at First Baptist Church, one of TAFY’s biggest supporters.
This adds up to something intangible and invaluable.
“We give them hope, above all,” Hillgren says. “We show them what love and acceptance really feel like.”
Pam Fosnes is one of the volunteer teachers who has been at TAFY alongside Hillgren since the start. A registered nurse, she works in the intensive care unit at Olympic Medical Center.
Last Saturday, she finished her shift at the hospital at 3:30 p.m. and went to work at TAFY at 4 p.m. One of her tasks there is teaching a parenting class titled “When to Take Your Child to the Emergency Room.”
She met Hillgren while working at Serenity House’s Dream Center, about seven years ago.
“What inspires me most about Susan is her genuine caring,” Fosnes says. “She truly cares about what happens to these kids.”
Hillgren is an example of a Christian who walks the talk, she adds.
As for the role Christianity plays in TAFY’s daily operations, Hillgren says it’s there if the young people want to hear about it. In any case, she strives to show, not tell, kids what she believes in.
“I do what I do because of where I came from,” she says, referring to her path — through alcoholism and domestic abuse — to a new life.
“God allowed me to live. I drove drunk for 15 years. There’s a reason I’m here,” she says.
Hillgren also stands on the shoulders of people who were there for her in her previous life.
Back when she was still drinking and she’d get to feeling desperate, Hillgren would call her sister Lisa, who lives in Chewelah.
“She always prayed with me,” Hillgren recalls. She adds with a smile: “I’ll bet she’s glad I got sober, so she doesn’t have to get those calls anymore.”
When she did quit drinking, she turned to an acquaintance: a woman who had taken Hillgren’s kids with her to church. This woman was a walking blend of strength and calm.
“I want what you’ve got,” Hillgren told her.
“Go to church,” the woman replied.
Hillgren is now a member of Bethany Pentecostal Church in Port Angeles, yet another of TAFY’s contributors.
These days Hillgren sees how her young clients are shunned, for being dirty, addicted to drugs or mentally ill. And she believes in the power of unconditional love.
“I love these kids because of who and what I am, not because of who and what they are,” she says. “They can’t make me not like them.”
Through all of this, Hillgren is surrounded by people who believe in her, starting with her husband. Rick’s support makes it possible for her to be a full-time volunteer. And he has provided skilled labor on many occasions to improve the TAFY building.
“There isn’t anything he can’t fix,” Hillgren said of her mate.
Local businesses and churches are also steadfast. First Federal, First Baptist, Twice Upon a Child and First Presbyterian Church in Port Angeles are among those providing basics like baby clothes, hats, gloves and hygiene kits.
In the new year, Hillgren hopes to generate more support, of course, to serve more people. She wants to form a task force to help the kids who wander Port Angeles’ downtown streets, teenagers and young adults whose family members, for various reasons, have walked out of their lives.
In the meantime, Hillgren continues to seek donations from companies, churches, families and individuals. There are about 14 households that contribute set amounts each month, she says. People can also drop off personal-care items and clothing for adults, children and babies at the TAFY center.
Hillgren would also like to secure more grant funding, to pay salaries to those who make TAFY run. Until that time, she will continue to volunteer to work with the young people who cannot fit in to mainstream society.
She simply wants to give them a chance at a better future — starting with a warm meal, some clean clothes, and a listening ear at TAFY.
“They need a safe place to be,” Hillgren says, and that is what she is determined to provide.
Hillgren, after all, says she has received what she needs — and wants to share it.
Caring for the people who come to TAFY is “my joy . . . God takes care of me. I get to do, every day, what I love to do.”
Hillgren hopes others in the community will treat her clients with kindness, during this season and through the year.
“Every time you’re nice to somebody,” she says, “it changes their life for the better.”