Having a ball

The long road to hospice in Missoula



Missoula has no hospice residence. After five years of political and financial upheaval, a hospice house run by Partners in Home Care closed in 2000. Now, two entities—Partners and Hospice of Missoula—provide hospice services in clients’ homes or in nursing homes. And after 23 years of fund-raising in the name of hospice, a group of insurance underwriters is broadening their board membership, seeking guidance from a consultant, and taking a new direction in hopes that a hospice residence—a home-like environment for people living out their last days—might again be in Missoula’s future.

Outsiders question whether the group is up to the task. For 23 years, the extent of the underwriters’ financial push for hospice in Missoula has been the tossing of an annual fundraising ball. Until 1998, they donated the money to Partners. Since 1998, however, critics say the group has not moved at lightning pace. They started routing money to St. Patrick Hospital’s foundation as a holding place. Then, two years ago, they launched their own foundation—Hospice Care Foundation. Six months ago, a consultant with expertise in community coalition building joined the effort. Now, five years have passed since the former house closed, 23 years since the first ball. Can hospice supporters push through the politics and finances to realize their dream?

Hal Gillet, self-proclaimed “boy wonder of the West,” is president of the Hospice Care Foundation. The boy wonder sports a little gray hair. He’s an insurance underwriter, and he has a picture of himself in his Shriner’s outfit perched on a little car—no hands—on a bookshelf in his office. Gillet was one of a core group of people who decided to launch Missoula’s annual hospice ball.

“Some of us decided that we wanted to do something for the community,” he says. He explains that the group had heard of the hospice movement in England, and they wanted to bring the movement to their hometown. Plus, he says, it’s their business. “You want to leave $10,000 a year to hospice?” he asks. “Why, you can do it for $500 a year.”

The group saw some hiccups along the way. Like when they booked movie stars to attract donors—“they turned out to be a pain in the ass,” says Gillet, describing no-shows who would arrive at the hotel but fail to arrive at the ball and subsequently charge for limousine services to and from the airport. But the ball raised money—Gillet says somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 each year the first 10 years or so. And the ball gained in popularity.

“About 10 or 12 years ago,” says Gillet, “we started growing.”

Now, says Eric Rolshoven, another member of the ball group and member of the new board, the annual ball sees a group of 900 repeat customers.

Outsiders have been critical that though the ball has grown, the group has taken its time to form a foundation and enter its second phase. Gillet has heard the criticisms, and he says it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback. Plus, he says, members volunteer—there are no paid positions. “None of us take any money,” he says. He feels the group is evolving at an appropriate pace.

Rolshoven feels the same way. Plus, he says, his group is comprised of fundraisers—they don’t necessarily have the expertise to lead them to their final goal. Both men point to the recent acquisition of a consultant to lead them through that process.

“Sally Mullen is really shepherding us through this,” says Rolshoven.

Sally Mullen directs Missoula’s Life’s End Institute, which focuses on community-based research on issues surrounding death and dying. She has the reputation for jumping into organizations that need strong leadership and providing it.

Among people who know anything about dying, says Mullen, “The best care you can get is hospice care.”

The former hospice residence, run by Partners in Home Care, which in turn is jointly managed by St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical, was fraught with political discord, says Mullen.

Part of Mullen’s role is to help the group build successful relationships with other players. She’ll help them research what it takes to run a successful hospice house; whether it will be six beds or 500 beds; who will build the house and who will own it. Along the way, Rolshoven admits they may learn that Missoula, in fact, cannot support a house, but can expand support for services another way.

The group now has $600,000 in its endowment. Some of the funds are available in the form of grants to hospice providers in town. So far, the group has provided a grant to Life’s End Institute. Hospice of Missoula has applied but not been granted, says Director Kit Jackson. Partners has not applied, says Gillet, but he mentions that the foundation directed $1,500 to Partners at one point and it was used for pamphlets, which isn’t what he feels the money should be used for. Explicit criteria for grants will be developed—and again, the underwriters are looking to Mullen for help in this regard.

Along with Mullen, the group looks to expertise from the school of business at the University of Montana. They have contracted the school to provide a business plan. Gillet says he expects to see a plan by the end of May. He says he’s tickled with what he’s seen already.

Gillet and Rolshoven say that if survey responses indicate Missoula can support a hospice residence, they may launch a capital campaign at the next ball next February. Between now and then, though, the list of tasks at hand is lengthy: there are surveys to administer; financial reports to review; and—maybe most importantly—relationships to build and rebuild. The final product and the details are still shrouded in fog, but at least two board members are undaunted.

Says Rolshoven: “We’re still framing the vision.”

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