Paul, MIMH’s director, informed staff that a fire Monday morning destroyed the home of longtime employee Michelle Hill, who has worked as a grants and contracts specialist for more than two decades.
News reports have said the accidental fire broke out around noon on Monday in the O’Fallon neighborhood of St. Louis. Hill was not home at the time but received a call from a neighbor alerting her that the two-story brick building in which she lived was engulfed in flames with thick smoke billowing from the windows.
Neighbors helped rescue Hill’s 78-year-old mother, Emma, from the building, and she was taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation and blisters on her hands. But Hill’s 18-year-old-son, Chandler – whom she affectionately referred to as “The Chan Man” and who was nonverbal and on the autism spectrum – did not make it out of the house and was killed in the blaze.
Katie Ellison, the associate director of research activities at MIMH, was on a Zoom meeting when she opened Paul’s email.
“I wish that I hadn’t been on camera,” said Ellison, who has worked with Hill for the past six years. “I reacted to it like a genuine reaction (holding her hands over her face) for everyone to see. It was just shocking, and I was stunned, grieving for her.”
No doubt many other current and former MIMH staff members had similar reactions. Hill has been held in high esteem as a colleague throughout her time at MIMH.
The organization is self-funded with research grants and other awards used to cover all aspects of its work, including the salaries and benefits of staff members. Hill’s work has been crucial to sustaining MIMH’s work.
“She’s a senior business operations associate, but what she does for us is she manages all of the grants,” Ellison said. “When we are submitting grant proposals, Michelle is the one who we work with to ensure that our grants are built and structured according to the requirements for UMSL. She inputs all of our budget numbers into UMSL’s database.
“We have seven different teams within MIMH, and within each team, there can be multiple principal investigators who are drafting grant proposals – whether they’re federal or partnering with the Department of Mental Health or the state or with foundations. Michelle has been responsible for helping us put together those budgets, and it was just until, I think, the second half of last year that she did it all on her own.”
Principal investigators such as Ellison have come to depend on Hill to help ensure they’re following guidelines and meeting deadlines to get their work funded.
They’ve known they could count on her even as she juggled the challenges that came with being a single mother caring for a son with special needs.
“She’s such a special, special person,” Ellison said. “She has a kind and giving heart. She loves Chandler and she loves her mom, and she would like to talk about Chandler, or she would share some of the struggles that she experienced with a child who was on the autism spectrum.”
As word of the tragedy spread, MIMH staff members started collecting funds among themselves for immediate needs such as food and clothing.
Clarice Lipsey, a business operations associate who’s been working closely with Hill since last year, started a GoFundMe page to raise money to assist Hill with buying necessities, paying medical bills not covered by insurance, covering the cost of a memorial service and replacing furnishings lost during the fire. Media coverage on KSDK (Channel 5) and in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch helped bring attention to the fundraising campaign, and as of Friday night, it had raised more than $20,000 toward its goal of $30,000.
Many of Hill’s current and former colleagues have contributed to the cause.
There’s a sense they only wish they could do more.
“MIMH is the best work environment I’ve ever worked in,” Ellison said. “People here care about their work. They care about each other, and I know it can always be suspect if a leader or supervisor says, ‘We’re like a family,’ but in many cases, that’s true. There’s a lot of caring and a lot of generosity.”
To donate, visit gofundme.com/f/michelle-hill.