Proclaimed by Pasadena city street banners, by a new logo and website and — most importantly — by those who’ve experienced it, Hillsides ( has for one hundred years created lasting change for children and their families in the foster care system.

A century after its founding, the Pasadena-based agency has the same mission, but new avenues of telegraphing its message, according to Joseph M. Costa Jr., chief executive officer.

“At the end of the day, the message is, we are an indispensable service for these children and their families and our goal is, if at all possible, to get them reunited and assist them to find a pathway that makes sense and is successful tor them,” he said. “Whatever it takes, we are willing to do it.”

For example, “85 percent of our children are restored to their families.

“There are times where Mom and Dad might not be in a position to receive kids back, but inevitably there’s a grandparent, aunt, uncle, older cousin, even a good friend of the family that can step in and serve as a real adult anchor for this child and be a bridge for Mom and Dad. And, at some point, Mom and Dad might be ready to take on those responsibilities. Or not — but that link has not been lost.”

Costa added, “You hear from kids in the foster care system a real point of lament that, more than being separated, they were completely removed from their families, in such a way there was no ability to hope of relating to them in a significant way, a good way.”

A history of creating hope

Hillsides, an institution of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, has been in the business of creating hope ever since Episcopal Deaconess Evelyn Wile opened a home in Highland Park for 13 children in 1913.

Wile rejected conventional wisdom, and rather than employing institutional models envisioned a campus with cottages where children could enjoy open space, fresh air and sunshine. Five years later, she moved the children to two cottages on 17 acres in the San Rafael hills of Pasadena, the agency’s main campus today.

There, she oversaw the construction of an administration building and residential cottages. Over the next few decades, the agency continued its mission. It was known as the Episcopal Church Home for Children (ECHC) when John Downes and his sister Joan went to live there in 1946.

Downes was 7 and Joan was 9, and they lived in the boy’s cottage and girls’ cottage respectively, after their recently divorced mother could no longer care for them.

His sister “went in kicking and screaming” but Downes, now 74, remembers it as a wonderful experience, chronicled in his memoir, When Johnny Came Marching.

They attended nearby San Rafael Elementary School and Downes, an alto, joined the Whitney Boys Singers, a 32-member choir that included 13 boys from “the home” as it was affectionately called.

“It was like the Vienna Boys Choir,” he recalled during a recent telephone interview form his Spokane, Washington home. “We sang twice a day in the summer and on weekends in the winter. We had a radio program and we sang in Episcopal churches and Protestant churches.

The youngest and shortest of the group, Downes was asked to sing a solo rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross” and was dubbed “the little boy with the big voice.”

He recalled other opportunities at ECHC, such as the time the boys and girls were invited guests of the radio quiz series “Truth or Consequences” and meeting celebrities like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and actor Gabby Hayes, known for their roles in western movies. “They would show up and bring food; everyone tried to make life as comfortable for the children as possible,” he recalled.

“And when we went to the San Rafael grade school, the home kids all sat at our own little picnic tables, but I never felt ostracized or separate from the other kids.”

Two years later, his mother and stepfather returned for him and Joan, and the family moved to Salem, Oregon.

He remembers helping out in the storeroom and assisting the caretaker on the grounds, and still follows news of the agency online. “I’m impressed with Hillsides and what they’re doing” he said recently. “It’s a great program and I’m really pleased that the Episcopal Church is quite involved in what’s going on there.”

Ann Freeman also lived at ECHC after her parents divorced in 1952.

She was 14 and “it was culture shock, but in a good way. My mother wound up with a prescription drug and alcohol problem and the second year I was there she tried to take her life and wound up in Camarillo State Hospital,” recalled Freeman, now 75.

“There were 60 children when I lived there. I lived in the senior girls cottage. The junior boys and girls lived in the main building. We all went to public school; we went to Luther Burbank School.

“We lived in Arizona that summer before my brother and I moved into the home; my mother was pretty messed up. We ate peanut butter and jelly three times a day.”

After moving to the ECHC, “I can remember how surprised I was when I realized we’d have three different meals a day.”

There was an even greater surprise in store when she met Gary Freeman there, whom she later married. “We married at All Saints Church in Pasadena July 3, and this year it will be 57 years.”

She also remembers Hillsides fondly. “It made all the difference in our lives, for my brother and myself,” she said recently. “My sister was older and had already aged out of the system, and didn’t have the advantage of going there. I think life was much more blessed for my brother and me than for her, and I attribute it all to Hillsides.”

A long way from Highland Park

Hillsides has grown tremendously since its beginnings in Wile’s Highland Park home; growing eventually to 12 on-campus buildings and three off-campus satellite homes and broadening services to encompass children and youth in the foster care system.

Last year, the agency served 7,000 children and families, “the vast majority of whom never saw the campus here in Pasadena,” said CEO Costa.

With a $26 million yearly operating budget, 450 staff members and services ranging from the Hollywood Hills to Baldwin Park, many administrative functions have been moved off campus to allow for more services at the Pasadena site, he said.

The agency maintains three family resource centers, as well as a presence in local schools, and “we have multiplied by 50-fold the contacts we have with families,” Costa said.

The on-campus K-12 school is a special education facility, with about 85 students. Of those, about 40 students live at Hillsides; the remaining are from local school districts. Enrollment is up by about 10 students in the past two years, Costa said.

But Costa, who succeeded long-time director John Hitchcock three years ago, said the majority of agency’s services are delivered in schools and neighborhoods.

“John was here close to 40 years … and it’s fair to say we underestimate his contribution when we say he is the founder of the modern-day Hillsides. He created the kind of foundation I have only benefitted from,” Costa said. “I can’t tell you enough about how much I respect John and what he has done here.”

During Costa’s tenure, the agency has achieved national accreditation through the Council on Accreditation (, which partners with human services organizations worldwide.

They’ve also repackaged the agency’s image, to capture more completely its mission.

Hillsides board member Steve Nishibayashi said he’s seen colorful banners announcing the centennial and proclaiming the Hillsides mission — “creating lasting change” — in parts of Pasadena. The banners have been installed on portions of Arroyo Parkway, Foothill Boulevard, Colorado Boulevard, and Fair Oaks Avenue.

The banners also depict the new logo, a pinwheel. “It has a certain dynamic element,” Nishibabyashi said. “I like the brightness and energy.”

Nishibayashi and spouse Mary Dee Hacker, members of St. Mary’s, Los Angeles, have been involved in the mission of Hillsides for about 25 years. “We are celebrating the centennial of Hillsides and have seen a remarkable ability to adapt to the changing needs of the children and challenges of uncertain resources (governmental funding),” said Nishibayashi, a pediatrician.

At the same time, the agency is “anticipating future challenges and planning for the next hundred years,” he added. “A unique aspect of Hillsides’ mission is its role of advocacy, in addition to its culture of service and commitment to innovation, as evidence of the forward-thinking anticipation of future needs” despite difficult economic times.

“Since Hillsides was founded as an Episcopal institution and continues to receive support in a variety of ways from parishes, missions, and church-based schools, I remain committed to maintaining and broadening that long-standing tradition,” added Nishibayashi, chair of the board’s Episcopal Connections committee.

That relationship will be highlighted during an upcoming Sept. 15 Founder’s Day celebration, one of several events throughout the year celebrating the centennial.

Costa said the pinwheel logo is “associated with childhood and we wanted to be fresh and almost playful like that,” Costa said. “In some Asian cultures the pinwheel is seen as harnessing of energy and transformation, which is exactly what we do with kids. In some cultures, it represents transforming obstacles into opportunities.”

Evidence of one such transformation was apparent at the June 27 grand opening of the Peer Resource Center for Youth Moving On, an initiative begun in 2005 to offer support and resources to 18- to-25-year-olds who have aged out of the foster care system.

Other events are planned as part of the centennial celebration, including a July 14 Farm-to-Table Dinner. For information, visit the website.