Summit County’s Deborah Hage dedicates herself to serving children and the hungry
December 1, 2013
Tuesdays are big days for Summit County resident Deborah Hage. Not only is she in charge of the free community dinner held at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne, but at least once a month her Tuesday ends with a trip to the Denver airport.
Many in Summit County know Hage — easily recognizable by a head of curly gray hair, bright blue eyes and large smile — through her volunteer projects, including the community dinner, the Friday food bags program for the schools and the day services program at the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon.
Hage's Tuesday jet-setting is related to her job as a trauma therapist. The 64-year-old travels all over the country to work with families who have adopted traumatized children, helping the parents and children adapt to their new situation.
"It's very exhilarating work," said Hage, who often stays in the home with the family to observe and assist.
Becoming a therapist wasn't Hage's original plan; it came about through her personal experience raising a family of biological, adopted and foster children.
Growing up to start a family
With her father in the Air Force, Hage grew up living all over the United States and sometimes abroad. Her longest stint overseas was in Japan, from 1957 through early 1961. She spent third through sixth grade at the base school, until her mother became pregnant with her brother and the family relocated back to the states.
Eventually, they found their way to Colorado and Hage spent her high school years in Alamosa, where she met her future husband, Paul, at age 16. Two years after she graduated high school, they got married and moved to Denver.
Encouraged at a young age to go into education by her pastor and parents, Hage studied at the University of Colorado, receiving a degree in education and a minor in speech. Upon graduation she was hired by Denver Lutheran High School to be an English and speech teacher.
"I enjoyed it immensely," she said.
After two years, she and her husband moved to Boulder, where they had their first child. They planned to have four children in total, two biological and two adopted. Hage elected to put aside her teaching career to be a stay-at-home mom and spend time with the children.
"That was a lot of work," she said with a laugh. "But I loved it. I loved being home with the kids. I loved it, loved it, loved it."
In addition to their biological children, they adopted two children from Peru.
The experience was so positive that when the two oldest children started school, Hage and her husband decided they wanted to adopt again.
"I said, 'Well, Paul, what should we do? Should I go get a job or should we adopt again?' And we decided to adopt again and keep me a stay-at-home mom," she said. "It was a wonderful decision."
The next children they adopted were two brothers from Texas, who came from a difficult background and one of which they eventually learned suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
"The kids had some emotional and behavioral issues, but we felt like we were really working through them well," Hage said.
The Hages continued to adopt, reaching out to children who came from neglectful and abusive homes. Overall, she counts 10 children, now all grown, as her own, plus various other foster children.
Hoping to help others
Fostering children proved a unique challenge, and one that has shaped the person Hage has become.
"Some of that worked, some of that didn't," she said of taking in emotionally and behaviorally challenged children. "It was difficult."
Her experiences drove Hage to get her master's degree in social work, with the goal of becoming a child and family therapist.
"We adopted with the idea that love was enough, love will conquer all, all these kids need is a loving home, and then we found that the children were behaviorally and emotionally unstable," she said. "Some of the therapists we were working with at the time said the children were angry, so we went at it from an anger point of view." Her gaze became intense as she remembered. "We tried to discipline for anger and completely missed the mark."
During her studies, Hage became interested in brain development and the genetics of personality.
"I attended conferences and I did a lot of reading, and I realized that I had missed the boat with some of my kids," she said. "It was very difficult (to realize)."
Eager to use her knowledge and experience to help others, Hage's next step was to open an adoption agency. She wanted to address children's issues from the very beginning and offer a better start to their new life.
The logistics proved difficult, and "keeping on top of all the state and federal regulations governing adoption and therapeutic foster care was so huge that I didn't have time to do the therapy," she said, so she eventually closed the agency.
The setback didn't stop her from trying new ways to do the work she loved. Hage took her urge to help others abroad, traveling the world for international adoption work and to volunteer in orphanages in places like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and South America. Today, she is still involved in multiple international projects, including building projects in Peru and Haiti through Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon.
Serving in Summit County
The Hage family arrived in Summit County in 1984 and Deb and Paul haven't left since.
"This was a really good place to raise a family," she said.
In addition to her work as a therapist and her international fundraisers, Hage has found opportunities in Summit County to channel her other passion — food for those who need it.
Nutrition is one of those topics that can get Hage talking. She knows a lot about it, especially how difficult it is to achieve for financially struggling families.
"Food safety is absolutely a basic need and so many of the kids I work with who are traumatized; they have food issues," she said, which range from hoarding and stealing food to eating too much or too little.
That's why the community dinner is so important to her, serving not only a hot meal but a nutritious one.
"It became really important to me that we start serving a meal that was healthy in all of its aspects, that we give families and children fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh salad, fresh meat," she said, adding that many attendees have told her that the dinner is the only time during the week that they eat fresh produce.
"It became very important to me that we not have a soup kitchen. This is not a soup supper. (It's) the whole meal experience of what a healthy meal looks like. This is what it looks like on your plate. You don't open a box of mac and cheese and call that dinner," she said with a frown.
Hage is also concerned with raising awareness of the need for nutritious food support in Summit County, whether it's rustling up more volunteers for the community dinners or answering questions about what she does.
"I'm continually questioned by different people in Summit County of why we are needing to feed people," she said. "Why are we doing 170 food bags every Friday? Why aren't those parents feeding their children? Because they're working poor, they can't," she said, banging her fist on the table. "Why aren't they feeding their children on Tuesday night? Because they're either working or they're not making enough to provide the kind of dinner we provide, the kind of dinner that most of us take for granted."
Hage's passion is contagious, which shows when the call for volunteers go out for her projects. When asked to sum up her philosophy, the one that drove her to do what she does, she became thoughtful, and wrote the following:
"My life's philosophy/theology is modeled after Christ — work for justice for the poor and disempowered, feed the hungry, heal the sick — enjoy life and work so others can enjoy their lives."
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