Long-time director of Hillcrest Transitional Housing, Cotton Sivils, retires after 18 years

Cotton Sivils spent his first few days of retirement on a farm pond in Rich Hill.

The former vice president of development at Hillcrest hauled in 29 fishes in three different trips to the small town located off Interstate 49 — about 60 miles south of Lee’s Summit.

He was also fielding calls from four different board directors, who asked him to join their respective boards.

Cotton Sivils

His retirement party in Independence drew more than 100 people, ranging from childhood friends to co-workers from KCP&L and Hillcrest, as well as friends in the bluegrass world.

Sivils isn’t sure what he will do next outside of a small list of things. He plans to continue bird watching and playing his ‘hillbilly’ bluegrass music. He also had three bookcases full that he has gotten over the years from the Hillcrest thrift store in Lee’s Summit.

“He is just a good friend and everybody he worked with appreciated him and knew where his heart was and his effort, whether he was asking for a million dollars or just a handshake,” said Lee’s Summit Social Service director Matt Sanning. “It didn’t matter. You had to enjoy Cotton for his enthusiasm for his job and his life.”

Sivils made a big impact in his 18 years working for Hillcrest, it is clear to see why so many boards would want his leadership and knowledge in the non-profit world. He made the transition from working for KCP&L for two decades to working for Hillcrest in eastern Jackson County.

Hillcrest has grown exponentially during his tenure, with a budget of $135,000 the first year to more than $3.2 million this year. This will be the 10th anniversary of the Hillcrest thrift store, which contributes about one third of the budget, Sivils noted.

In addition, more than 30,000 hours of volunteer work was donated to the thrift store.

The non-profit helps provide housing for families and work with them to get back on their feet within 90 days. Over the years, under Sivils’ watch, he helped thousands of families — mostly single moms — with hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty.

“The residents look like you and me, not a guy living under the Paseo Bridge,” Sivils said “We are serving the working poor who are in bad situations for whatever reason. Almost all of the residents are here for different reasons.”

Over the years there have been full families, single moms with children, sometimes a single dad with children and on the rare occasion a single person. Sivils estimates he has probably seen about 1,600 people come through the program.

Sivils gives credit to the multiple case workers who have helped numerous families — many who are considered the working poor dealing with a myriad of problems in various aspects of life.

“When we begin to see and address issues it is an incredibly hopeful thing for the families we serve,” Sivils said. “We had a tough job and we take families whose life is messed up and we fix it in 90 days, it is quite an accomplishment itself. What people don’t grasp is the amount of resources you plug into one family to become self-sufficient.”

Hillcrest will cover every expense when the families are living in the housing for the 90 days, from hair care to dental work to car repairs. Hillcrest works closely with area churches who often help sponsor clients as well.

There are a few stipulations, such as if they have drug issues in the past they need to be clean. A full-time job is needed and the clients will have to attend classes to build the foundations and skills needed to break the social service cycle.

“If you look at the societal standpoint you can distribute food but that doesn’t fix poverty, it fixes hunger,” Sanning said. “Hunger is is not a primary detriment to this community right now. We have to look at the wraparound services and you can’t just (give a bag of food) and expect everything to be fixed. Lee’s Summit Social Services is a program that offers a lot of emergency services so they don’t have to get to that point but when they do, they don’t just need food. They need a home and savings. Cotton’s program is a wraparound champion of service so when they leave they still have support. We rarely ever see those that graduated from the Hillcrest program.”

Sivils is quick to turn away credit himself for the work he has done.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “The way we think if we can get a mom stability, we change the life of her kids. That is generational change and that is incredibly fulfilling when you see the change in people.

“It is very humbling to think you had that kind of impact on someone’s life and it is very heartening that what we do works. I think most people want to be part of something that works, they don’t want to see a charity with deep, dark administration holes. With the 90-day turnaround you almost see the return in the investment. I think of the Emerson quote, ‘if you help one person draw an easier breath, you lived a successful life.’ I think I got that in my pocket.”

When he started Hillcrest had eight apartments in Independence and between 2005-2007, a four-plex in Sugar Creek was added and four four-plexes in Lee’s Summit.

Four years ago, a merger meant there are now 78 apartments in 21 buildings across the Kansas City metro area in Missouri and Kansas.

Sanning remembers a conversation with Sivils where he said he needs to try to double his Hillcrest graduation rate of 45 families to 90.

Sivils didn’t think that was a good idea.

“He said ‘he can’t do that because it would dilute the quality of the service. Part of what we do is a highly concentrated nature of support,’” Sanning said. “He had such a wealth of expertise, not just how to do business, but how to deal with conflict and how to take care of the staff. He took care of the people that needed it the most. He is an icon in the world of true non-profit service. I don’t just say that; he is a special guy and I don’t know how many families he helped over the years with his innovative approach to fundraising. Certainly for this area of Jackson County, he really set the bar higher for everybody.

“His impact in Lee’s Summit will be felt for years to come.”

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