By Jacob Fyock and Chris Prenatt
Bengal News West Reporters
Kate Hilliman went from saving people’s lives, their belongings and pets in New York City during 9/11, to helping low income kids discover maritime history while learning how to sail along the coasts of North America.
Now, she brings her expertise and experience to Buffalo as she takes the reins as the new executive director at West Side Community Services, 161 Vermont St.
“This position I’m in right now is exactly what I wanted, it's exactly what I worked towards,” Hilliman, 39, said.
Hilliman got her undergraduate degree in community and regional studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. After graduating, she worked in New York City doing educational programs and initiatives for the public.
She also performed heroic duties by helping victims during 9/11 while she was at an academy training to become a peace officer. When it took place, she was given an option if she wanted to help out and decided to take it.
“We were not the firefighters or the police, but we were escorting residents, we were doing a lot of pet rescues,” Hilliman said.
Hilliman then pursued her lifelong goal as a professional sailor. Travelling one from coast to the next, she noticed that organizations that owned ships would use them for field trips and programs for children to attend.
She mentions that these old ships were an amazing experience because she liked how they challenged kids to do something outside their comfort zone.
“I never saw that coming, but it’s really incredible when you get students who don’t have opportunity or who have behavior problems and more conventional environments like a classroom or a home,” she said.
She eventually found her way to Buffalo after her husband Rich convinced her to move. While he started his family business, Hilliman decided to start her own non-profit that focused on experiential education for low-income students, writing grants and making sure everything was open and available.
Hilliman would get her masters in social work at the University at Buffalo. While getting her degree, she would work at Say Yes to Education Buffalo. The program focuses on being family support specialist, meaning that she had to collaborate with families that had a high-risk student and try to implement a system to make that child better academically in school.
“You have one foot in the school and one foot in the community and your trying to bridge the gap between the children who are really struggling in school and whatever is going on at home,” Hilliman said.
Hilliman said the similarities between Say Yes and West Side Community Services is that she works with the same families. In her new position, her current goal is to establish a day care center for West Side. The has been around for a while and hasn’t had a day care in decades, Hilliman wants to bring it back.
“There was a day care here a long time ago,” Hilliman said. “Day care is a huge need. This zip code is incredibly diverse in terms of income levels and backgrounds, so there’s certainly a need for quality child care in this neighborhood.”
She said that this will be a long-term project and will probably take about a year.
While her time at West Side Community Services hasn’t been long, she’s done quite a lot and it has her peers talking. Elizabeth Murphy, the board president said the decision to hire Hilliman was a good one.
“She had a good background in youth services and she was a previous E.D. at another organization,” Murphy said. “One thing I noted about Kate and I think it’s great is she is an excellent communicator. She is interested is listening to what other people have to say.”
Joanne Butcher, the senior activity coordinator, likes what Hilliman has done so far.
“[Kate] addresses everything that needs to be addressed right away and doesn’t put anything on the back burner,” Butcher said. “She is very efficient and easy to communicate with, she’s good for the job.”
Even though there are a lot of positives to the West Side Community Services, Hilliman believes that it needs a facelift. A lot has changed along the West Side and Hilliman believes a facelift will be beneficial to the organization.
“Since this place was founded, the community has changed, the demographics changed, the income levels changed a bit,” Hilliman said. “We have to go back and say who are we to this community, what are we to this community and how do we serve them the best.”