Baraboo native who founded sober house for women looks to expand
Dennis Hill had received many distressed calls from his daughter before. He didn’t know this one would be the last.
Chandra Hill called him at 5:30 a.m. one morning in July 2011. She sounded troubled, but after years battling mental illness and heroin addiction, her state of crisis seemed so routine Hill deflected the call and went about his day.
“It ended up being the worst choice I’ve made in my life,” Hill said.
He returned home from errands to find a message on his answering machine from University of Wisconsin Hospital. His daughter had shot herself. After a daylong fight for life at the hospital, she could no longer breathe on her own and was taken off life support. She was 31.
“It pains me to know she was so frantic and desperate in the final hours of her life,” Hill said.
In just a few days that devastating loss would spur a spiritual healing in Hill, a Baraboo native and longtime football coach at East High School in Madison. In a few years, it would result in the establishment of a safe house for women in recovery. It’s just the type of facility Chandra, who bounced in and out of treatment and was placed on waiting lists for shelters, desperately needed.
“Really what we’re doing is saving lives,” Hill said.
In 2017 he teamed with Tellurian, an addiction treatment center, to buy a home on Madison’s southeast side. Chandra’s House of Hope provides temporary quarters — as well as counseling and other services — to five women.
As Chandra’s House nears its $200,000 fundraising goal, Hill is looking toward expansion. His ideas include opening a second Chandra’s House for women in Baraboo or Prairie du Sac, or perhaps opening one for men.
“My heart’s still here,” Hill said of his hometown. “I want to give back to my community something that’s going to make a difference.”
Cracks in the system
Retired pharmacist Bill Reay of Prairie du Sac is working side-by-side with Hill because there aren’t enough residential facilities for recovering addicts in need. “People fall through the cracks. They need the kind of help Dennis provides,” Reay said. “It’s a glaring gap.”
Hill, himself a former counselor, found flaws in the system and exposed them on his daughter’s behalf. He fought with some doctors who prescribed medication she didn’t need, and tried in vain to convince others she needed mental health care. He grew frustrated over her treatment plan being predicated on her insurability, her ability to pay. The treatment she got didn’t seem to work, and she spent her final years homeless, in and out of detoxification centers and even jail.
Hill attributes her suicide to a mental health episode rooted in childhood trauma the family can’t identify. While vivacious and close to her father as a girl, she became insecure and unstable. “My daughter was complicated,” he said.
On her funeral day, Hill said, he experienced a spiritual awakening. He fell to his knees and wept uncontrollably. “I felt this power come over me that’s hard to explain,” Hill said. “I didn’t see life in the same light I used to see it.”
He found answers to haunting questions. He found assurance that his firstborn daughter had faith, and would enjoy everlasting life as a follower of Jesus Christ. And he found his mission: To help other women at risk.
“I had to do something,” Hill said.
He sold Tellurian CEO Kevin Florek on the concept of a residential treatment program that would help women transition back to independent, sober lives. They acquired a five-bedroom, 2,500 square-foot house.
Chandra’s House provides shelter, addiction counseling, job referrals, dental care and other support for women who stay anywhere from six months to two years. Prospective residents apply for admission, and if accepted must pay rent and remain employed.
“Our goal and our objective is not to have our women stay with us forever,” Hill said. “We’d like to believe we’re breaking the cycle.”
Now Hill is thinking about expanding the Chandra’s House model. Sauk City has a recovery home for women, but Baraboo doesn’t. And there’s no such facility for men in the area. “This is a missing piece,” Hill said.
Reay said Hill’s unshakeable commitment to the cause and compelling personal story make him an ideal advocate for expanding much-needed recovery services. “That’s what it takes, it takes a personal touch,” Reay said.
Hill said he plans to continue developing partnerships, perhaps by forming a consortium of professionals dedicated to treating addiction and mental health issues. He’ll also work to identify donors sympathetic to the plight of broken people navigating a broken system.
“I think there’s more people like that,” Reay said, “people who have been affected and want to help.”
Launching, running and possibly expanding Chandra’s House allows Hill to ensure his daughter’s legacy. He retells his painful story in hopes other fathers never have to.
“It never gets easier. It just gives me a greater understanding,” he said. “Even though there was darkness, there was great, great grace.”