PORTAGE — Nine years ago, Joel Hill wanted to throw a party for his son’s park soccer team.
The season ended around Halloween, so Hill thought that would be a good theme.
“We decorated with a bunch of bed sheets and old fence panels and it kind of looked like a hospital,” said Hill, who then lived in South Haven.
The kids trick-or-treating in the neighborhood wanted to go through the haunted house, so the Hills allowed them to join in, getting their candy at the end. The second year the kids became the actors.
“It was just for fun because it was a party,” he said. The family, who loves Halloween, added onto the scenes each year. When the Hills’ South Haven home burned down, they moved it to their new home on Old Porter Road in Portage.
At one point, Hill said, people offered money, so they decided to collect donations. The first year they accepted donations, they collected $150 for Gabriel’s Horn Homeless Shelter in Valparaiso.
By the third or fourth year, Hill said, they had 1,000 people go through the haunted hospital, thanks in a big part to social media spreading the word.
Haunted Hills Hospital continued to grow, exponentially. Last year some 6,000 people attended the attraction, still being held at Hill’s home.
Over the nine years, they raised nearly $10,000 through donations and then admission fees with proceeds going to local charities such as Gabriel’s Horn, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Eventually, Hill said, he took the one-time party and formed a business. He also had to work with neighbors who sometimes weren’t happy that so many people descended upon their neighborhood each year.
“We’re not in it for the money, as long as we break even. We love what we do. None of us are business people,” said Hill, a millwright by trade who had to take a business class to keep on top of things.
This year the event, which begins tonight, is at the former U.S. Steel Training Center, just to the south of Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk.
They don’t make a profit each year. Everything taken in goes to defray the costs, goes to charity or is used as incentives for the hundreds of volunteers who spend their month of October, and several weeks before, getting ready and putting on the haunted hospital. This year they have 160 volunteer actors alone.
This is Marissa Powell’s third year to volunteer.
“Its a family activity. When I first got there, I was kind of shy. It gives you a chance to figure out who you are and what you want to do,” said Powell, an eighth-grader at Willowcreek Middle School.
Powell said she begins volunteering every June, walks with the group in the Fourth of July parade and by August is usually spending every weekend helping build sets or rehearsing for the performances.
“They make you feel like you’re important, like you matter and have a say,” she said.
Hill, whose two sons Jacob and Justin have worked on the haunted hospital since the beginning, said that’s part of their goal, to get youngsters involved in a positive experience. They also learn skills, from building sets to dealing with people.
The actors do it for free. Hill said they set up an incentive system, based on participation. Participants can earn a seat at the year-end banquet or a T-shirt or jacket, awards and gift cards. They have given scholarships to some of their college-bound volunteers. The haunted hospital also qualifies to fulfill Portage High School’s 40 hours of community service requirement.
Hill said he had no idea that the party he threw nine years ago would turn into such a success.
“We started for fun because we love Halloween. We thought if you build it, they will come,” he said. “Some nights we have 60 people lined up in the rain to get in.”