HILA and its concept of ‘an extended family’

Janet Silvio, CEO of HILA, speaks to MaltaToday about what led her to CareMalta and HILA, the challenges faced when operating in the sector and what to expect in 2023

HILA CEO Janet Silvio
HILA CEO Janet Silvio

Part of CareMalta Group, HILA has introduced new models of care in Malta, offering residential and respite services for people with disabilities, challenging behaviour and mental health illnesses. At the helm is Janet Silvio, CEO of HILA, that is making a tangible difference in the lives of so many. Janet speaks to MaltaToday about what led her to CareMalta and HILA, the challenges faced when operating in the sector and what to expect in 2023

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I’m 45 years old and have been working with CareMalta since 2009. I answered a vacancy within CareMalta, and I was given the opportunity to work as a Facility Manager at Cospicua Home, which was a dream come true since Cospicua is also my hometown.

Today, I cannot believe that I form part of a Group that this year is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. For the past 30 years, CareMalta Group created exceptional services for the elderly, while time and effort have been invested in the area of disability.

Before joining CareMalta Group I decided to leave everything and travel around the world. Back then, I was working in Accountancy since my Degree is in Accounts, but when I returned to Malta my wish was to work in a different sector, if possible, the social one. This may sound like a cliche’ but that experience changed my perspective in life. It was an experience that changed me.

After five years working at Cospicua Home as Facility Manager, I approached my CEO, back then Ms Natalie Briffa Farrugia who is now the Chairperson of Vassallo Group, to see what other opportunities were there within CareMalta Group to help me grow and she mentioned a particular project. The Group had been mulling the possibility of going into the disability sector or the alternative care sector.

HILA was born upon the wish of the Founder of Vassallo Group, Mr Nazzareno Vassallo, together with today’s Chairperson, Ms Natalie Briffa Farrugia to concretize the many requests which had been received in the past about offering services to persons with disability apart from the elderly.

The first two years were mainly about researching the sector in which we now operate. During that period, I tried to think of a possible name for this new service we were tailoring and, since I love the Maltese language, it’s like the word HILA came naturally to my mind. HILA is a beautiful Maltese word that means ability - commonly used in the Maltese language. It was then also given a further meaning in English through its initial Home to Independence and Limitless Abilities.

Even our logo was designed by a member of our then Consultative Committee, Clifford Portelli, who is himself a person with a physical disability.

Slowly, we started looking for suitable properties. First, we bought Casa Apap Bologna, in Mosta. Then we bought what is today Dar Bjorn in Qormi and Casal Nuovo in Paola. We entered the disability sector as a private enterprise and then in 2017, we reached an agreement with Agenzija Sapport and started offering our services through the government, who offers subsidies that are crucial for most families.

Our latest project is Santa Rosa, in Mosta - a further specialisation to what we currently offer at Casa Apap Bologna, with a tailor-made service for children and adolescents, with a special focus on challenging behaviour.

Over a few years, we slowly started, offering mixed respite services at Casa Apap Bologna, so we had residents who stayed at the house and others who visited for services.

In the case of Casal Nuovo, which opened its doors on the 10th of June 2021, it is a totally different concept, as Casal Nuovo de-institutionalized 50 persons from Mount Carmel Hospital, where they had lived many years, some of them even most of their lives. The de-institutionalization of these acute clients was a first in our islands and today they are living as part of a community in the heart of Paola.

And I guess for the residents and the families, even being away from Mt Carmel – which unfortunately still has somewhat of a stigma associated with it – would have been a big first step?

It took us a year to say that the residents had fully settled down in their new environment. It was a huge learning curve for both the residents and us but today I am proud to say we succeeded. In the case of Mount Carmel Hospital, unfortunately, the biggest stigma is the place itself.

On a national level, as a society, I believe that we have still a long way to go in order to remove barriers which have been built in the past by society and to abolish the stigma there is about mental health.  Whether it’s a temporary condition or a lifetime diagnosis we need to understand that these don’t define a person.

I know that Vassallo Group, as a group, has a social conscience that started under the former chairman and is still strong today. But surely, even this project – HILA – was profit driven?

One of the reasons I’ve stayed for so long with this group is in fact that social conscience. What I like about Vassallo Group is that as part of its diversification effort, the group is giving back to society in a way we understand and excel at. We could always opt to develop properties, which would be easier than operating in the elderly care or disability sectors.

When I took on this endeavour, I was worried in the beginning since it was not easy but witnessing every day the results we get with our clients, whether big or small, is a constant inspiration for us to keep working to build more services for a more inclusive society.

An issue that is often raised is that people with disability should be fully integrated into society even while in care. Was that an option for you?

I believe that the reality is that different people have different abilities and disabilities and require different solutions in support I believe in as many solutions as possible being offered, mainly integration within the community and transitional care. There are people who can be integrated into society but there are also those who need to be provided with tailor-made services and solutions to function within society. At the end of the day, we cannot force a person to be what they are not. The solution cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Another reason we have not yet delved into rehabilitative care is the lack of professionals, who would be necessary to adequately follow residents rehabilitated into society.

What’s next for HILA?

This is going to be a busy year for us. We are close to concluding another project - Santa Rosa. When I started this sector, I quickly gravitated towards care for children, because there are many services for older people, but fewer options for children as well as adoloscents. It was always my home to separate the residents at Casa Apap Bologna so to focus and specialize even further. And with Santa Rosa, we will do exactly that, as it will offer services to children and adolescents .

In March, Bjorn will be opening his second home in Zebbug. We will be present there, offering care services, but will be elevating our input as this will be a bigger property.

And finally, we will be focusing on offering services in Gozo. As CareMalta Group, we are not yet present in Gozo and we realise that this is a different market. We have already identified a property and will in fact be leasing the Astra in Victoria. We did a lot of research in Gozo and the probability is that we will be offering different services there than we do in Malta. This is still a long process but hopefully, by the end of 2023, we will look at this project more tangibly.

Getting to this point has been a long journey for you. Any regrets?

No regrets. I do not regret anything I have done in my life, even on a personal level. All my choices have led me to here and now.