Hospice director ready to start enjoying next chapter

Optimism, it seems, has always been a part of Darlene Hilderbrand’s style, and that’s a good thing because, at 70, she’s leaving her job as executive cirector of Hospice of Homer to start enjoying the “last third of my life.”

“I want to see what this next phase offers,” she said, smiling broadly, contemplating a freer existence come the end of April after 19 years with Hospice of Homer, the last 15 as its head.

She began at hospice as its service coordinator in 1998, working directly with clients and volunteers. Witnessing how the non-profit served the community, she said she came to appreciate its mission to turn compassion into action.

“I saw people touched by hospice services and experienced their genuine gratitude,” she said. The commitment of volunteers and the generosity of donors touched her deeply, too.

“Someone once told me, ‘Our best insurance is the community of people who care about us and who we care about,’” she said.

Named executive director in 2002, Hilderbrand took on the administration of a growing organization. It was a smaller operation in 1998, with two part-time staff members working in cramped facilities, providing end-of-life services to 24 clients.

Today, hospice’s new facilities on Pioneer Avenue is a workplace for three staffers and a cadre of more than 60 active volunteers who cover the greater Kachemak Bay area as far north as Ninilchik. They serve more than 100 clients of the organization’s Volunteer Visitor and End of Life programs. Hospice’s well-supplied medical equipment loan program is available to anyone in need.

Hilderbrand grew up in Marshaltown, Iowa. A bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Iowa and a master’s in public administration from the University of South Dakota in her pocket, she found employment in human resources and social work before coming to Alaska.

In 1992, she caravanned with her stepfather and mother up the Alaska Highway.

“It was an amazingly beautiful drive, with all the flowers on the sides of the road,” she remembered. “And the exquisite color of the glacier-fed rivers — the Yukon, the Kenai, and my favorite, the Kasilof. And the mountains!”

At the top of Baycrest Hill, it was love at first sight.

“Looking down on Homer and the bay, who could resist?” she said. “I always imagined I’d live in a place with beautiful architecture. And I do. It’s just that nature built it, not humans.”

Prior to taking the coordinator’s position with hospice, Hilderbrand worked as director of the Kachemak Citizens Coalition and as the associate director of the Cook Inlet Seiners Association. When she heard about hospice, she volunteered to lead its first grief group.

“The people I met at hospice, the staff and volunteers, were genuine and caring, the kind of people I enjoy. The clients gave me the opportunity to contribute meaningfully and to remember we are all in this lifeboat together,” she said.

It was clear to many she was dedicated.

“I have always been deeply impressed at the level of commitment that Darlene has brought to hospice and our community,” said Michael Hawfield, hospice board treasurer. “That commitment is the most important quality the leader of hospice could possess.”

Working for hospice afforded her a perspective on death that she might not have found in another job.

“It’s given me the gift of facing my own mortality, and understanding that death is as natural as life,” she said.

That view is invaluable, she said, because working with clients often requires speaking sensitively yet frankly about life, death, love, anger and grief with dying clients and their families, who have invited hospice to share a very private and sacred experience.

“It’s not that grief isn’t a huge part of it, or that I’m not sad for those who have gone, but it is a part of life,” she said. “Understanding that enriches my life.”

Leaving hospice after so many years is bittersweet, she said.

“I’m reaching a new point in my life that means letting go and moving into what is next for me,” she said.

And where will she venture now that she has so muchtime on her hands?

“Oh, there are so many places I’d like to go,” she said. “Walking tours of Italy is one. Or I might go up to Samarkand in Uzbekistan in the Hindu Kush for its architecture and history. I would like to go to India, it’s alive, full of color and life … and great food.”

The hospice board recently named Hilderbrand’s successor: lifelong Alaskan Jessica Ramsey Golden. (See related story, this page.)

As she transitions out of her role at hospice Hilderbrand said she wanted to extend a heartfelt thank you to community for its past and continuing support for hospice.

The community is invited to celebrate Hilderbrand’s retirement from 5-8 p.m. April 19 at Alice’s Champagne Palace.

Hal Spence is on the board of directors of Hospice of Homer.