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Seven years ago, Celeste Hilling was approached by Laurie Mitchell, a friend and former chair of The New Children’s Museum, to join the museum’s board and help raise money to support its move to a state-of-the-art 50,000-square-foot facility in downtown San Diego. Hilling was unsure how to respond. She was already serving on the board of Scripps Memorial Hospital, parenting her four-year-old daughter and, of course, doing her day job leading Skin Authority as its chief executive officer.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is going to be a big commitment,’” Hilling recalls. But then she thought of her youth in Austin, Texas, and the opportunities she had to experience music and the arts. And she considered her daughter, lucky enough to have a family with the resources to encourage her interests in everything from piano to sports. Then she learned that there are 43,000 children in San Diego who were living below the poverty line. “I started thinking about how many kids don’t have that family, and aren’t we a family as a community that should be a support structure?” says Hilling. “That really motivated me. If I don’t take the time, who is?”
Hilling carved out space in her schedule and quickly went from reluctant recruit to strong advocate. With several years on the board under her belt, Hilling became its chair on Dec. 4. The work hasn’t always been easy. She’s had to convince people the arts aren’t only for rich kids. “The arts are as basic as breathing,” Hilling says, illustrating her point with a story of some second graders she met who had little understanding of shapes. “If you don’t know what a circle or triangle is, you can’t get far.” Hilling emphasizes that art also bolsters performance across a vast array of fields. “You’re not just building the future artist, you’re building the future engineer,” she says.
Her conviction has won over donors. Since the museum opened, more than $15 million has been raised. Hilling and her husband, Ted, funded a gallery that has climbing walls and rotating exhibits, like a colorful graffiti mural by artists from the San Diego group Writerz Blok. “I love the spaces where kids are physically and mentally engaged. That teaches them the power of mind and body,” she says. “When kids are running through that space, they’re what the museum is about. They’re laughing and smiling, creating and imagining.”
Hilling says her involvement rewards her above and beyond the time she puts in. A crucial lesson is that “kids have a lot more maturity than we think.” And giving back is good business, because it keeps Skin Authority connected to its community. “Some people think of philanthropy as something you do after you reach a certain level of success,” says Hilling. “I think of it as a key part of our mission statement as a company.”