A thank you from the Heartland

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm

    In today’s world, where there are so many extremely deserving nonprofits, all vying for awareness and support, Camp Heartland was honored and thrilled to be profiled on ABC’s "Extreme Makeover Home Edition," which allowed us to share our message with millions around the world.

    We are very grateful for the generosity of ABC, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," Alure Home Improvement, Clearpool Education Center, Miracle Recreation Equipment and the hundreds of donors and volunteers who made magic during a week in March. Our new recreational center, playground and upgraded cabin will greatly enhance the experience of hundreds of families affected by HIV/AIDS.
    We are excited that our Oatman-Gaitan camp family has received the gift of a new home. Debbie is an incredible woman, and I was pleased to nominate her.

    The creation of Camp Heartland was inspired by my experiences with 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, beginning in 1991. born with AIDS, Nile’s prognosis was very grim. Yet, through new medications, his own inner-strength and the support he received at Camp Heartland, Nile is a true survivor. Recently, I received word from Nile, now 21, that he is engaged to be married. As he was not expected to live past his 10th Birthday this is truly remarkable and hopeful.

    I speak for everyone at Camp Heartland, when I say we wish Nile and his fiancée, Nicole, many years of love, happiness and health. 

    At the same time we celebrate so much happiness, we reflect and cherish the memories of the three former campers who died this past year.

    Losing a member of our Camp Heartland family never gets easier. Yet, as Nile’s story illustrates, it is also a time of great hope.

    Through the generous support of so many in the Milwaukee area and beyond, we are preparing for our busiest and most impressive summer camping season ever. Our association with the Birch Family Camp in New York allows us to serve an additional 350 family members affected by HIV/AIDS.  Additionally, we are excited to operate four full sessions for children affected by HIV/AIDS and three sessions for Native American children, young people in foster care and those with Tourette’s Syndrome.

    In total, well over 1,000 children will greatly benefit by participating in programs at our camp locations in Minnesota, California and New York.
    Camp Heartland has a bold vision for growth not only in the United States but internationally as well: 

    In the U.S., we are greatly expanding our programs to meet the rapidly changing needs of teenagers and young adults who are surviving AIDS. 
    Through our Heartland Partners programming, Camp Heartland is reaching out to serve other children who are suffering or at risk, including children who experience foster care, grief, poverty, Tourette’s Syndrome and other painful life challenges.

    Through the replication of our programs, Camp Heartland will reach tens of thousands of children throughout the United States and beyond.

    Through our Global Heartland endeavors, Camp Heartland will make life better for children affected by HIV/AIDS throughout the world.

    This impressive growth could not be possible without the kind donors we have had the pleasure of working with throughout the years since Camp Heartland’s inception. My heartfelt thanks goes out to them for all they have done and will continue to do for Camp Heartland. 

    Now, thanks to the awareness Camp Heartland has received thanks to ABC and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," the next generation of supporters has found their way to us and will hopefully be part of the next chapter in the story of Camp Heartland. 

    To demonstrate the power of the media and what being featured on the show meant for Camp Heartland, in the days following the show’s airing, Camp Heartland’s Web site traffic increased more than 5,600 percent from the previous week, and "Camp Heartland" was the No. 1 search phrase on AOL.com. But beyond raising awareness of Camp Heartland and its mission to the thousands that watched the show and visited the Web site, its appearance on the show has translated into thousands of dollars of donations and hundreds of completed volunteer applications – in just a few days. 

    In the coming weeks and months, we hope that this momentum only grows, allowing Camp Heartland to broaden the number of children and families it is able to touch with its resources and message of acceptance and love. While the impact our TV experience is just now being felt, the outpouring of support we’ve already received makes me confident that Camp Heartland is well on its way to reaching goals I could not even imagine existed when I founded it at the young age of 22. 

    Finally, as the birthplace of Camp Heartland, I’d like to give a special thank you to the people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin for their support through countless volunteer hours, financial contributions and involvement in our special events over the years.


    Neil Willenson is the founder and chief executive officer of Camp Heartland (www.campheartland.org) in Milwaukee.



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