Inspired by seven-year-old Nile Sandeen, an HIV-positive youth from Mequon, Wisc., Neil Willenson founded Camp Heartland in 1993. At the time, it focused on giving kids affected by HIV/AIDS the best week of their lives—and it did just that at various camp sites throughout the Midwest.
In 1996, the organization purchased its facility in Willow River, Minn., giving Camp Heartland its permanent home, thanks to a donation from Minnesota Twins Manager Paul Molitor. The location featured a main lodge, cabins, three lakes and miles of walking trails. Most of all, it became a beacon of hope for children across the country battling illness and discrimination.
That same year, the organization went through its first program expansion, opening Camp Hollywood HEART in Malibu, Calif., enabling it to serve even more deserving children. By 2005, Camp Heartland had provided over 5,300 camp experiences to young people, expanded its permanent facility to include multiple shower houses and a baseball field, and created OneFutures, a mentorship program for young adults affected by HIV/AIDS who had become too old to participate in the traditional camp program.
The Camp Heartland mission was changing, too. Although HIV/AIDS remained a life-threatening illness, advances in medical treatment meant that more people were living longer with HIV/AIDS. Recognizing this change in needs, Camp Heartland began more year-round support programs for campers. This expansion necessitated a name change. In 2006, Camp Heartland became One Heartland, heralding other changes, as One Heartland began to partner with outside organizations to host their programs at the Willow River facility.
We developed new programs for youth facing other significant life challenges, such as living in transitional housing (Camp Northstar), struggling to achieve a healthy weight (Camp 5210) and identifying as LGBT (Camp True Colors). But the core mission remained: a care-free week at camp for deserving kids.
In 2011, Neil stepped down as Executive Director, passing the torch to then National Camp Director, Patrick Kindler. Under Patrick’s leadership, One Heartland has continued to grow its programs and expand the services it provides its youth populations, thanks in large part to the generosity of donors and volunteers from around the world. Their support of One Heartland’s mission will allow us to continue providing camps and support programs for many years to come.