Building confidence

Islander Kim Hilliard takes her tools to Thailand.

To meet the pretty and devilishly petite 48-year-old with pale skin, vivid green eyes and floaty red hair is to become best friends for life. Speaking from personal experience, I recall a few years back — a few Oak Bluffs Tivoli Days back — when at the end of a blue-and-gold afternoon, Kim and I ended up, having been introduced, sitting on the steps of Mister Pugg’s Mugg and chatting with each other as we also shared words and chuckles with scores of people strolling by.

I told her, “Between us, we know everyone on Martha’s Vineyard.”

You know that follow-your-bliss road we’re all supposed to navigate? Kim, being a Renaissance Woman — what Shakespeare and his confreres would have called a “woman of many parts” — has found herself in a virtual labyrinth as signposts lead her every which way.

She’s a musician, integrative health massage therapist, self-taught carpenter, and a seeker with Eastern leanings. And — sorry for fawning, but Kim inspires it — she’s brilliant at everything she takes up.

She grew up in Chelmsford, yet when asked about her background, will seemingly kick off her life when in 1990 at the age of 20 she moved to the Island, bringing with her the guitar-picking she learned at the age of 13. Mostly she sings. “I always, ALWAYS love to sing!” she wrote me recently in an email. She played conga in Die Kunst Der Drum, sang in the original rock band the Endorfins, warbled some more and strummed bass with Byrd and Felicia Taylor, and, as she also wrote by email, “The hugest musical part of my life was performing at Wintertide in the early 90s.” (Take a deep nostalgic breath right here, all of us who remember Wintertide at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.)

Another change of scenery — on many levels — arrived in 1997 when she left her beloved Island to study at the Heartwood Institute’s advanced massage therapist program in Garberville, a town in Northern California.  

She writes, “I continued on to study neuromuscular therapy with the Paul St. John seminars, myofascial release work with Howard Rontall, Reiki level 2 with Constance Messmer, T’ai Chi yoga flow with Lee Holden, and completed my yoga teacher training at Kripalu in 2014.”

In 2005, Oceana Rames, naturopathic physician and massage therapist, joined Kim and they opened Church and Main Natural Therapies in Vineyard Haven. In 2011, Rames relocated to Arizona to care for aging parents, while Kim operated solo for four more years, then ventured forth to freelance.

The next big story in the arc of Kim’s life, which I can also imagine as a great documentary, was stumbling upon the opportunity to buy her own home. And — wait for it — to build it. Kim describes how that unfolded:

“In 2015, and after 25 years of living and working on MV and trying to buy property — I finally was able to purchase a diamond-in-the-rough — a sweet little tucked-away overgrown lot with a teardown structure off a bumpy road in OB, no water and no septic.

“Over the next three years, and through the most grueling period of mental and emotional stress, relentless and exhausting physical labor, mixed with a ton of vision, divine guidance, self-reliance, persistence, and the continuous emotional and culinary support of friends keeping me afloat, I designed my home, and transformed my property into something truly magical.”

She took up residence this past summer. “Carpentry was self-taught. A friend showed me how to frame a wall back in 2000. I took off from there. Lots of learning curves, YouTube, and many projects.”

Is there a term for building with architectural aplomb? That’s the energy Kim brings to all her projects. When I dropped in on her last summer she gave me a guided tour of her charming two-story house and also a structure out back which she dismissively called a shed. “This is no shed!” I objected. “It’s a Cinderella cottage!”

She let me climb a wide ladder to a storage loft that lay under a skylight the size of a living room window (well, it had originated in someone’s living room or library or salon). I stretched out on my back and admired another grand skylight on the other side of the steepled roof-line, as well as two smaller skylights for good measure, as well as a panoply of antique paned-glass windows on all sides.

I told her, “If a guy had built this so-called shed, we’d have a grey-shingled block with two 1’ by 1’ windows. Done.”

A new spin of the karmic wheel came for Kim this past November when a massage client of 18 years, Corrie Dretler, fully aware of the healer’s Many Parts, invited her to become involved in a  nonprofit that she works with, Friends of Thai Daughters (, to teach carpentry skills to young girls in mountain villages of Thailand. (Caveat: if you log onto this NGO website, you’ll fall into a trance of maternal tenderness towards these happy girls, at table, jumping rope, in classrooms, and you’ll haul out your checkbook to hand over more money than your accountant would appreciate). The rationale for FTD is that, in the Third World where human trafficking is a constant threat to poor, underaged girls, a chance to receive education in a community that instills strength and self-confidence, the danger is averted.

Kim agreed to get involved. She reported, “Corrie texted ‘Get your passport ready, this is going to move at light speed.’ Yep. On Halloween day I was on the bus to Logan.”

For her first day on site in Chiang Rai, the girls performed a Thai dance for volunteers on the lawn and sang a sweet song they had written about coming to FTD and how their lives had changed for the better. Kim borrowed a guitar and sang along with them. “Music is the universal language,” she wrote.

Kim’s key project at FTD was working with Sam Sousa and Alisa Keesey of GiveLove, learning to build composting toilets. She could then teach the girls how to build them so that they can return to their communities with these new skills that will improve sanitation conditions in the mountain villages. Their first challenge was gathering the materials they needed. “Plywood from a woodworking shop, screws, a polyurethane product, and wire mesh fencing for compost bins from a big box store, and the 5-gallon buckets that are everywhere worldwide; we could not find them. Sam had to have them shipped from Bangkok!”

She taught such skills as measuring, drawing straight lines, cutting with a jigsaw, drilling holes, fastening screws and bolts. I told Kim girls and women everywhere would undoubtedly love to learn carpentry, which for millennia has been the sole province of boys and men.

Kim plans to return to Thailand with FTD in February to teach the girls more basic carpentry skills, including designing and building desk workspace for their studies as part of the Sunflower Center project. She’ll also be working with GiveLove and the girls to bring the compost toilets to their villages, install them, and educate the community on how they work.

Will Kim Hilliard’s new grand passion to empower Thai daughters take away vital energy from holistic health massage, music, and, on a whim, plugging in a new skylight on her many-steepled cottage? To know Ms. Hilliard is to realize nothing prevents her from charging down a fresh path.

And, for the sake of our own fresh paths, could we induce her to run carpentry workshops on Martha’s Vineyard?

Kim Hilliard will talk about her trip at the Vineyard Haven library Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7 pm.