Erica Hill builds ‘extended family’

Erica Hill is Mercer Island’s Hilary Swank character in “Freedom Writers.” Hill lights fires under high school students with her passions for English and running.

She won the MI Rotary Achievement Award on May 8, which recognizes individuals making significant community contributions while exemplifying the Rotary ideals of honesty, integrity, compassion and generosity. The past two such recipients were Marguerite Sutherland in 2005, for her civic and environmental leadership; and Edna and Chris Berger in 2004, for volunteerism.

Hill exceeds her job description as English teacher and cross-country coach, providing lunchtime and vacation runs, engaging large numbers of students in her activities, with which she brings “non-stop enthusiasm,” according to her 20 nominators.

“I not only want my English students to find their voice and express it in a variety of venues, but I want to connect with them as a friend and supporter,” she said. She presents them with such literature as “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Color of Water,” advises them in creating the Pegasus literary magazine, and is available to them at all times by cell phone.

Parents say they would like to borrow her motivator button. Sandra Rockway says Hill coached her son for two years and although he’s no “superstar,” instills in him a drive to give his best. Hill’s inclusiveness has raised the track and fitness programs to new levels and she even involves families in the fun.

“Erica’s personal relationship with each student has built our cross-country and track teams into among the largest in King County [currently 150],” says MISD Superintendent Cyndy Simms. “Her students and runners would run to the end of the earth for Erica. She, in turn, welcomes every student at the finish line, cheering on even the last MI runner to cross the line.”

Hill says she is paying back what she received in her own education at Seattle Prep, Seattle Pacific University, University of Washington and Antioch College, where she was mentored in all aspects of her life. And, of course, by her parents and grandparents and other family members.

“When I went off into the world my mom gave me a giraffe to remind me to ‘stick my neck out,’” she told Rotarians as she accepted the award.

At 32, she’s been affiliated with MIHS for 10 years, and her positive energy creates a ripple effect, said her nominators. She helps students believe in themselves, set their own goals and inch toward them relentlessly.

She is herself a model, striving to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon, which must be run in two hours and 47 minutes, a feat she almost reached recently, minus a of couple minutes. She has won the Rotary Run in her category, and last spring she came in third in her 30-to-34 age group at the “Nordstrom Beat the Bridge 8K Run,” completing in less than 31 minutes.

Hill lives in East Bellevue, with husband John, the head cross-country coach and assistant track coach at Bellevue High School — MI’s arch-rival. “Whoever loses those meets gets to sleep on the couch,” jests Hill. Their 16-month-old daughter, Zia, is named for the Hebrew word meaning movement and motion.

Hill, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, wants to give young people more than high school experiences. She contends that a pair of tennis shoes and a good book are lifelong therapies. “Running is more than getting from point A to B; it’s measuring one’s personal growth day to day. It can be a mode of adventure, a way to let off steam or think through a problem. And, a good book can impact your life with new perspectives.

“It’s been my privilege to have had a few moments in our young people’s lives to introduce them to my two passions. It’s powerful for me to watch them go out into the world and do such incredible things. I really don’t regard this as a job.”

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