BIOGRAPHY – NEIL WILLENSON BA – University of Wisconsin – Madison ‘92
Neil Willenson is a national non-profit leader, public speaker, social activist, actor, entertainment industry executive and author. Most notably, Willenson is the Founder of One Heartland (formerly Camp Heartland), a U.S. non-profit organization that greatly improves the lives of children, youth and families who experience HIV/AIDS and other significant life challenges worldwide. Willenson is the Vice President of Community Relations for Kapco Metal Stamping in Grafton, WI where he is responsible for raising funds and distributing grants to hundreds of worthy charities. Willenson is also the Vice President of a fast-growing entertainment company called K-Nation Entertainment
Willenson’s journey into social activism began at the young age of 15 when he founded the Milwaukee Live charitable organization to raise money and awareness for the homeless. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 17, Willenson was the youngest candidate for elective office in the United States when he ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly.
When he was just 22 year old, Willenson befriended a five year old boy with AIDS and witnessed the discrimination, pain and sadness that he experienced. Through the creation of Camp Heartland, Willenson sought to provide a safe haven for children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Since the inception of Camp Heartland in 1993, thousands of children have participated in various camp sessions free of charge where they can have fun, feel accepted, and if desired, speak openly about living with the disease. After an extensive strategic planning effort, Willenson and his team recently expanded the Camp Heartland organization into a larger umbrella organization called One Heartland. The expanded mission includes programs and services for other isolated and suffering populations including children who experience poverty, homelessness, and foster care.
Under his leadership, One Heartland raised over 40 million dollars for children with HIV/AIDS and other challenges, operates programs in New York, Minnesota, and California, has grown to become the largest organization of its kind, and serves as a mentor to dozens of other organizations. Now as the volunteer “Founder Ambassador” to One Heartland, Willenson continues to speak on behalf of the organization whenever requested.
Willenson is also creator of the “Journey of Hope” AIDS awareness program. During these unique presentations, children affected by HIV/AIDS share their experiences with school groups, religious organizations and community audiences. Since 1994, the “Journey of Hope” has visited dozens of cities and has educated and inspired over 60,000 individuals. In addition, Willenson has served as a keynote speaker throughout the United States providing insight on youth leadership and activism.
In order to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, Willenson and One Heartland have been featured by the Oprah Winfrey Show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Dateline NBC, TIME Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other publications. Willenson and Camp Heartland were profiled in a CBS Movie of the Week, in the Disney Channel film “Friends for Life,” on Today, Good Morning America, and countless television talk shows. Along with many of Camp Heartland’s campers, Willenson authored the award winning book, “A Journey of Hope – Inspiring Stories of Courage and Unconditional Love.”
In December 2008, Willenson was named one of GQ Magazine’s “Men of the Year.” Previously, Willenson was the recipient of the Forward Under Forty Award at his alma mater – University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Aetna Arthur Ashe Voice of Conscience Award, V100’s Peace Achiever Award, and the Use Your Life Award by Oprah Winfrey.
Far more important than receiving widespread media coverage and awards is the fact that Willenson has been privileged to befriend thousands of inspiring children and young adults who face adversity with great courage and dignity. Fundamental in every project Willenson leads, is the belief that all people have value and that we should follow our heart to work for a brighter tomorrow.