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Feeling embraced by the community

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Don and Donna Hildebrand, who have worked for 40 years with youth and seniors in a variety of capacities.

Q: Don, you came to Southern Oregon to work for Campus Life and served as director for 20 years. How many young people did Campus Life impact?

Don: Campus Life was established in three schools when I came here in 1973. We ended up expanding to most of the high schools in Southern Oregon. I would say between 400 and 500 kids were involved weekly. I think I spoke at every high school on relationships, marriage and family in the required family health classes. We also had a radio program called Reflections.

Donna: And “Scream in the Dark.” That was a big deal.

Don: Yes, there was “Scream in the Dark” (a Halloween haunted house). Over 10 nights, we had maybe 12,000 kids come through. That was a lot of fun. It was an incredibly labor-intensive program, but it was a kick.

Q: You’ve both lived in Medford for 40-plus years. How has the Rogue Valley changed during that time?

Donna: Thank goodness it’s much more diverse. We moved here in 1973, I remember saying to Don, “This will be interesting for a couple of years, but I don’t want to stay here.” Truly, after growing up in Los Angeles, I just looked around and said, “Where are the people of color?” I think it’s changed so much for the better that way. We have many, many people who have come from different parts of the world and different parts of the United States.

Don: I’ll relate it to youth ministry. When I moved here, it was understood that teachers didn’t give homework on Wednesday night because that was church night. I think the church had a much bigger role in the community. Back then a lot of the churches had full-time youth ministers. There are not as many today.

The freeway still divides Medford. Dick McLaughlin was asked, “What’s the most significant change he’d seen in Medford over the years?” He said, “Dividing Medford with that freeway was a bad decision.”

Q: Donna, you taught history at Crater High School and you traveled with students to Washington, D.C. for many years. What did those trips do for kids?

Donna: It was a community effort in Central Point. Parents and grandparents, Rotary Club and small businesses up and down Pine Street shelled out raffle ticket prizes. That’s how students in Central Point funded their trip. The first nine years was through Close Up, an organization in Washington, D.C., so it was heavily educational and American government-driven. We met with our senators and congresspeople. I know it changed their lives. Their parents were just overwhelmed with what their own kids came home knowing. It was exciting.

Q: Don, you’ve led a few student trips with Campus Life, right?

Don: We did several trips to Montana and Mexico. One year we took 200 people, mostly teenagers, from the Rogue Valley to Ensenada, Mexico, for spring break. This was one of the more ambitious, some would say stupid, things I’ve ever done. I remember stopping just before the border to get some food. “OK, now we’ve got to count everybody up.” We kept coming up with different numbers of kids. We never really figured out if we had everybody, but at some point, we said, “Well, we’ve got to go!” I shake my head at the thought of that. We built homes in Ensenada, and Reid Murphy built a medical clinic as part of our service week.

Q: How did you two meet?

Don: It was a Campus Life romance in a sense. We were at Hume Lake at a Christian conference. I saw Donna at one of the events and thought, “I’d like to meet this lady.” After a meeting ended, I saw that she was going down one side and I thought, “If I time this just right, we’re going to hit the door at the same time,” and we did. I said something. We talked a bit, and then her boss walked by and made some comment like, ‘Don, this is Donna. Donna, he wants to marry you. See ya! Bye!” and walked away. That was kind of an awkward moment! It was another six months before I asked her out. She initially said yes, and then she called and canceled.

Donna: It was complicated. There was another relationship. I transferred to Willamette University as a junior. Don’s family lived in the Salem area, so he visited me at Willamette. We saw each other again and boy, that was it.

Q: Don, after Campus Life you became a chaplain at Rogue Valley Manor. What kind of work did that involve?

Don: Part of my responsibility was to visit residents in the Health Center. There could be 60 to 70 people in the Manor Health Center. People are very vulnerable when they’re in a care center, in a situation when their health is failing. I had my first opportunities to deal with people who knew that they were dying. I was swimming upstream for a bit. I thought, “What a profound situation I’ve found myself in. What do I say?” I learned to say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m just going to be here and walk with you through this.”

My other responsibility was “to have lunch every day with the residents.” I’ve always felt like breaking bread is kind of a holy moment. I had some of the most significant and wonderful conversations over food. Pretty much I moved from table to table. I met some of the most remarkable people — people who shook me up; people who shook up my faith. One retired minister started asking questions about what I believed. I would just give the glib answer that worked fine with high school kids, but for some reason, this guy who’d been a minister for 40 years wasn’t buying it. I’d have to say, “Well, I thought I knew. Let me just think about that.” It was a tremendous time of growth and challenge in my own life, trying to make sure what I really believed.

I went through hospice training, and that was a game-changer. I came out of that as a “hospice advocate.” We designed a series of presentations at the Manor about the end of life. They’re still doing a similar series there. That also initiated some community sessions on death and dying.

Q: Donna, how do you use the Manor as a resource for your teaching?

Donna: I took buses of students up to the Manor for my freshmen and sophomores to interview Manor residents about the Great Depression and World War II. They were the greatest generation. They participated in oral histories with my students. Talk about a gold mine! It was terrific for my students.

Q: What events or people have changed the trajectory of your life?

Donna: For me, it was my senior year of high school. Some of the girls I was on the cheerleading squad with were involved in our Campus Life club in Ventura. They encouraged me to come. They could tell that I was seeking. My Campus Life director made an enormous difference in my life. He introduced me to Don a couple years later, and then he performed our wedding. He’s just meant the world to me.

Don: I’ll go back Mrs. Wall, a teacher at Salem Academy. She was an amazing lady. I wrote a paper, and she made a comment about how I had some important insight. I grew up in a German family. My parents you know, I think they loved me, but they certainly never said it! But she just expressed her feelings. That was big for my confidence.

I was at Biola University, and a guy named Ed Trenner was looking for volunteers for Campus Life. He challenged me to work with kids. After a volunteer stretch, Ed said, “We’re thinking about asking you to come on part-time, and we’ll pay you $50 a month.” I thought, “What a deal! That’s perfect! Fifty bucks a month!” I thought it was just the greatest thing in the world. Gosh! I was rolling in it. That’s when I really started spending time with high school kids, and I just loved it. I had no idea what the implications were, but I sensed that this was what I needed to do.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Donna: Dr. Lee Murdoch spoke in my Lamaze classes to those eager scared parents. He said, “Parenting should be fun, it should not be a grind. This should not be super scary. It’s part of our job to help make it fun for you, to help make it easier.” I’ll never forget those wise words. In my teaching, I thought, I’d better make history fun. I’d better make American government fun; better make the constitution fun, it shouldn’t be a grind. I know that now better than I did when I was in my 20s or 30s.

Don: My faith is more of a mystery now than it has ever been. When I was younger, I saw things as black and white. I pretty much had all the answers. You could ask me something and I’d go, “Oh, yeah, page 17, paragraph 3.” Now, I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Life is more of a mystery. My faith is still very strong, but I am totally fine with the mystery part and saying, “OK, I just don’t understand it.” What exactly is going to happen when I die? I’ll be surprised, whatever happens.

Q: What has Southern Oregon given to you?

Donna: Once I got involved with the Muscular Dystrophy telethon on KTVL, I learned how incredibly generous and caring people in this area were. Northern California and Southern Oregon raised more money per capita than any other market our size in the U.S. Marvin Rhodes and I were always astonished at how generous the people of this valley were. That’s something that I’ve been proud to be associated with.

Don: I can say without a doubt that the community has given more to me than I gave. I could go to people for “Scream in the Dark” and say, “I need a unit of plywood,” and they’d say, “Help yourself!” It’s just an incredibly generous community. I feel like a taker in a lot of ways. We’ve loved it here. I feel embraced by the community, that’s been good.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.


Bios: Don and Donna Hildebrand

Don Hildebrand was born into a Mennonite family in Dallas, Oregon. He attended a two-room schoolhouse and graduated from Salem Academy and Biola University.

In 1973 Don became executive director of Rogue Valley Youth For Christ, and he and Donna got married. During his 20 years as YFC director, Don hosted a call-in radio show on KTMT and a television program on KOBI. From 1996 to 2012, Don served as director of pastoral services at Rogue Valley Manor.

Don has ridden his motorcycle north to the Arctic Circle and south to Cabo. In 2009 he set a land speed record at Bonneville in a side-car.

Donna was born and raised in Southern California. She earned bachelor’s degree from Willamette University and a master’s at Southern Oregon University. Donna married Don have three adult children and six grandchildren. She has worked as a dental assistant, childbirth educator, social worker and high school social studies teacher. Donna co-hosted the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon on KTVL for 25 years. She volunteers at church and the Britt Festival. She has served as a substitute teacher and a mentor for new teachers in retirement. Traveling and visiting grandchildren are favorite activities.

Donna and Don Hildebrand at their Medford home. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune