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. / photo 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. / photo by Summer Herndon

by Nune Gazdhyan
photography by Summer Herndon

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.