After the first child of Heidi and Dan Simon got a spot in the classrooms of Hilltop Child Development Center, they wanted to make sure their future kids could learn there, too.
So they specifically planned their two ensuing pregnancies with one goal in mind, Heidi said: that each child could enroll before the previous one finished, so that the family could keep its spot. All because of Hilltop.
It’s that type of devotion to the center that Gina Byrd-Stadler hopes will draw people to support it at a 40th anniversary celebration this weekend.
Since the center formed in 1972, springing out of the February Sisters movement for reforms for women on campus, it has brought together the children of KU students, faculty, staff and others, and touched hundreds of lives.
“In some way over 40 years, many, many people in the university community, and just in Lawrence, have been part of Hilltop somehow,” said Byrd-Stadler, who in July became the center’s interim executive director following the retirement of longtime leader Pat Pisani.
The center will celebrate its anniversary with a dinner fundraiser, at 7 p.m. Saturday at The W Banquet Hall, 704 Connecticut. It will include food from Maceli’s, wine and beer samples from local wineries and breweries, and silent and live auctions.
“It kind of grew from the idea of, ‘Let’s do something to celebrate the 40th anniversary,’” Byrd-Stadler said. “But we were also looking for a fun fundraiser to do in the fall.”
The center receives no regular funding from KU, which surprises a lot of people, she said. Student fees did pay for the construction of its current building, which opened in 2000, but Hilltop functions as a private nonprofit organization funded mostly by tuition.
So it’s seeking to ramp up its fundraising efforts in order to provide more scholarships to pay tuition for the children of KU students, as well as to install a permanent surface to replace the wood mulch on its playgrounds.
The center has an income-based sliding tuition scale, but it also provides as many scholarships as it can to the kids of students, based on need.
“One of our real missions is to help students who have children finish their education,” Byrd-Stadler said.
The center’s building, on Irving Hill Road near the Burge Union on campus, is licensed for up to 294 children for its day programs for children ranging from 1-year-olds to kindergartners. It also has after-school programs on campus and at two Lawrence elementary schools.
Heidi Simon, an associate director in KU’s Office of Admissions and Scholarships, said the youngest of her three children this summer finished his final year at Hilltop, ending a 10-year string when her family had at least one child there. She and her husband, Dan — who works for KU Endowment and serves on Hilltop’s board of directors — will be honorary chairmen at the celebration Saturday.
Heidi brought her kids with her on her commute down Kansas Highway 10 each day when the family lived in Olathe, just so they could attend Hilltop.
Teachers there essentially potty-trained two of her children, she said, but she’s thankful for their time there for many more reasons.
“It was definitely their home away from home,” she said.
She said that despite the center’s large size for a day care or preschool, the staff gave her kids close attention and pushed them to learn.
“There was never baby talk,” she said. “They always had high expectations, and they talked to them like normal humans.”
Her kids made friends from different backgrounds whom they still see today, she said, thanks to the diverse pool of families served.
Byrd-Stadler said plans were for the anniversary celebration to turn into an annual fall fundraiser to accompany the center’s Hilltop Hustle race each spring. Tickets for the event are $60 for individuals or $100 for couples. Anyone interested in attending can call Hilltop at 785-864-4940.
Byrd-Stadler said she runs into someone around Lawrence nearly every day who’s been involved with Hilltop in some way, and she hopes some of those people will show some support Saturday.
Simon said she believes that’s what will happen.
“It’s something that people are really proud of, and you can tell by the waiting list that they’ve had over the years that reputation has continued,” Simon said.