2009 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Communications Arts
Age: 38 | Grafton, WI
CEO and Founder of One Heartland
Neil Willenson had Hollywood in his sights as a budding young filmmaker studying communication arts at UW-Madison. This being real life, though, things don’t always follow a script.
Oh, he’s been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and graced the pages of GQ and People magazines. Just not for any on-screen exploits.
Willenson’s star-making turn came about in 1993 after founding Camp Heartland an internationally recognized camping and care program for children affected by HIV/AIDS.
During his senior year at UW in 1991, Willenson befriended a five-year-old boy who was HIV-positive, having contracted the disease at birth from his mother, who had been infected by her ex-husband.
At the time, Willenson simply wanted to reach out to this child and his family and prove that people can be caring and welcoming. This little act of kindness grew into something more when the boy wanted to attend summer camp… but no camp would accept him, fearing his HIV-positive condition. (This being the early ’90s, there were still a lot of myths about the affliction.)
Willenson knew that other children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS were no doubt dealing with similar kinds of discrimination. So he took it upon himself to provide a place for these kids to be, well, kids. And Camp Heartland was born.
Under Willenson’s leadership, One Heartland Camp Heartland’s parent organization has raised more than $40 million to support children with HIV/AIDS and other challenges. The organization has now grown to become the largest of its kind, and serves as a model for dozens of others throughout the world.
“In addition to their HIV/AIDS status, more than 80 percent of our participants live in poverty. As such, all of our programs and services are provided free of charge,” said Willenson.
He also co-created Journey of Hope, an AIDS awareness program that gives children affected by HIV/AIDS an opportunity to share their experiences with school groups, religious organizations and community audiences.
Working with kids seemed inevitable for Willenson. “During my junior and senior years [at UW], I earned extra credit by creating and producing a children’s television show called The Peanut Gallery,” he said.
And while Willenson has always been ambitious he founded a nonprofit to help the homeless and hungry at the age of fifteen it took the UW to sharpen his talents.
“My experiences at the University of Wisconsin helped provide me with the skills to create the Camp Heartland and One Heartland organizations,” he says.
Make no mistake about it. Neil Willenson is a star to thousands of children and families.