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Happy Camper: Ozaukee County

Camp Heartland director Neil Willenson knows happy people create happy culture.

May 14, 2018
Neil Willenson

Did you know that a Washington County Badger gives children who suffer the most a reason to smile?

Neil Willenson ’92 knows two things: one, that life means most when it’s given to serving others; and two, camp is awesome.

Willenson, a native of Grafton in Wisconsin’s Ozaukee County, has given much of his career to creating One Heartland, an organization that has provided summer-camp experiences — and the lifelong friendships and cheerful memories that come out of camp — to thousands of children whose lives have been darkened by disease and death. One Heartland is the parent organization for Camp Heartland, which serves children with HIV/AIDS, and for Camp Hometown Heroes, which serves children of military personnel who have died in service.

This wasn’t how Willenson expected his life to go when he arrived at UW–Madison as a teenager majoring in communication arts. “I was going to be an actor,” he says. “I was going to make movies.”

When Willinson met a five-year-old boy with HIV, he found his mission: to make children like him happy.

Ultimately, his movie career consisted of an uncredited part in the 1991 Mark Harmon TV movie Dillinger. But it turned out he had a better role to play.

When Willenson went home for the holidays in his senior year, he met Nile from Mequon, a five-year-old boy with HIV — and found his mission: to make Nile and children like him happy. And so in 1993, Willenson found a campground in Minnesota and created Camp Heartland.

Over the last quarter century, the camp has grown thanks to attention from GQ and People and Oprah Winfrey. In 2011, Willenson expanded with the creation of Camp Hometown Heroes. One Heartland now has facilities in California and New York, in addition to the Minnesota site. It’s raised $45 million and served more than 3,000 children.

When he’s not helping his young campers, Willenson shares his insights about the power of helping others with businesses in his home state: he serves as director for philanthropy for Kapco Metal Stamping in Grafton.

“Happy people create happy culture,” Willenson says.

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