Featured Residents

Learn About Some of Our Wonderful Hilltop House Residents

Debbie Petersen

Debbie Petersen Resilient Artist

When you meet someone who lives with joy and zest in spite of physical challenges, you think this person must have been loved deeply as a child. This is not the case with Debbie Petersen. Her early years were filled with abuse, physical, emotional and mental and an alcoholic and narcissist mother. As a result, she was always trying to escape and when she was six, she arose early, went to a neighboring dairy farm for the 4:30 a.m. milking and announced to the farmer, "I can work real hard and I need a job."

She was born in Fresno, California and by age six, she and her family moved to Santa Ana. Their home was surrounded by orange groves. This was forbidden territory for her, but one day she and her friends got lost and ended up in the grove during an Orange Grove spider endemic. She remembers trying to crawl out under the spider webs. The patrolmen found her on the highway and took her to the hospital. She recalls nothing about the incident except waking up in her bedroom two days later with paralyzed vocal cords from trying to scream. She was re-traumatized when she saw a spider on the drape in her bedroom.

She graduated from high school at 16 and heard her mom and stepdad plotting to claim she was incorrigible and send to her to a women's prison until she was 21. Again, it was time to run away. She was homeless. One day, she fell asleep in the back of a 39 Chevy and was awakened surrounded by a Mexican family with five children. They took her home with them where she lived for a year. This was the first time she ever had an inkling of what a "normal" family looked like and to experience having a "mom" who taught her how to cook.

All this trauma did not bode well for relationships and parenting because she did not know what was normal. She gave her children all the things she had not known, music, sports, activities and a secure home with loving attention. She was married five times and has three children two of whom she has a good relationship and eight grandchildren whom she loves and respects.

Some experiences stand out in her childhood that made a lasting impression. When she was seven, her Aunt Lucille gave her a How-to-Draw book for Easter and this started her on her artist path. Another positive thing out her childhood was that her mother gave her a three-speed Huffy Sportsman bike when she was ten and she was free to roam all the countryside. And, because her mother loved horses, Debbie had riding lessons starting at five and often groomed and cared for other people's horses. When she was 14, her second stepdad cashed in savings bonds to help her buy her first horse, a Mustang. Being on Skippy was like being on top of the world she recalls. She babysat to earn money to pay for board, vet and entry fees for riding events (barrels and poles). Most of the time she rode bareback. Because of her affinity with animals, people hired her to break horses that no one else could ride. Once a beautiful Palomino horse, Mr. Ed, a retired television star, came to live where she was boarding Skippy. He impressed her because he could do nine tricks and most show horses could only do three.

Debbie always dreamed of becoming a vet. She won a scholarship with her art for her entire college education. She planned to major in sciences to gain entry to veterinary school and minor in art. She was only 16 and mother would not sign for her to go because she claimed that art was not an honorable profession.

Her favorite book is Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear. She loves it because she connected with Ayla, a strong heroine, and just like Ayla, she taught herself to identify and use wild herbs and natural edibles and made her own field guide.

Debbie was diagnosed with C.O.P.D. in 1997 or 98. She quit smoking on the day she crossed the Washington border to move into Hilltop on December 12, 2012.

She describes her three best qualities as empathy, attitude and resilience and anything to do with the natural world brings her great joy. She is aware she has sold herself short her entire life and even though she is told that she is a great artist, she does not really believe it. She says that moving here is the first time in her life that she actually feels that she fits in and belongs. It is the first time she ever felt appreciated for things that her family admonished her for. She feels that someone actually gives a damn about who she is and how she is doing. She likes the way the community is set up here. She helps people and other residents help her. She is grateful for all of you because she has never had that experience before. And, we are grateful that you found your way here all the way from Texas because of what you bring to this community.