By Liz Wolf
One Heartland is a national nonprofit based in Minneapolis that has been working for more than two decades to help improve the lives of children and families facing significant health challenges or social isolation.
It all started as Camp Heartland founded in 1993 for youth affected by HIV or AIDS. The founder was then 22-year-old college student Neil Willenson of Mequon, Wisc.
“The reason Neil started the camp was there was a little boy in his hometown who had HIV/AIDS. He was discriminated against because he wanted to go to camp and nobody would let him,” says Susan Leckey, who has been with One Heartland for more than 20 years – longer than any other employee. Today she is major gifts officer/national giving and offices out of her home in Vermont.
She says Camp Heartland was intended to be a place where kids who were affected by HIV or AIDS could just be kids. They can participate in different camp sessions where they can have fun, make friends, and if they want, speak openly about living with the disease.
“Kids who came to us then were very sick,” Leckey recalls. “After that first year, parents would say, ‘This was the best week of my child’s life. They really need to come back; this inspired them. It helped keep them motivated. They loved being around all of these kids with similar situations.’”
The program took off from there and the organization rented camps for a couple of years. Then in 1997, Leckey says Paul Molitor (former Milwaukee Brewers player and now manager of the Minnesota Twins) donated his signing bonus, which was leveraged with money from Carl Pohlad (the late financier and Minnesota Twins owner), which gave One Heartland a $250,000 down payment to purchase their own camp in Willow River, Minn. The 93-acre camp is located 90 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Expanding to help more kids
While One Heartland continues to help improve the lives of children and families affected by HIV/AIDS, it now offers other programs to help kids.
“We started having less kids born -- thank God -- with HIV and AIDs, and we said let’s utilize this beautiful camp and reach out to some other youth that we know can use our help,” Leckey says.
In addition to Camp Heartland, One Heartland hosts separate weeklong camps: one for homeless children, a camp for children with Type 2 diabetes, and a camp for youth who identify as LGBTQA, who have been socially isolated.
One Heartland’s donors provide more than 500 camp experiences every year.
“This year it was closer to 700,”Leckey notes.
More than 75 percent of participants live below the poverty line, and One Heartland’s commitment is to send any child to camp regardless of their financial circumstances.
MNCAR partners with One Heartland
In 2004, MNCAR chose One Heartland as its chartable partner and every year for the past 11 years has hosted its annual MNCAR Golf Tournament in which the bulk of the proceeds go to the nonprofit. The tournament sells out every year with 144 golfers and it always has great sponsors, says Julie Yeazle, MNCAR member and director of business development for Anderson-CC in Edina.
“It’s a great cause,” Yeazle says. “And it’s Susan’s leadership that brings us all together and her team has been amazingly supportive. They join us every year as we’re planning the golf event and have lined up great big-ticket items for silent auctions. They’re very participative in all of this.”
Yeazle says Paul Molitor has been at numerous tournaments as a celebrity partner and golfer. “He’s been so supportive of Susan and One Heartland; it’s big support from a big name,” she says.
Leckey says the golf tournaments, along with MNCAR’s Emerging Brokers, which has hosted past bowling tournaments, have raised $180,000 for One Heartland. “That’s huge,” she says.
New home for the camp director
It was decided in 2010 that One Heartland’s onsite camp director desperately needed a new home.
“We had a dilapidated trailer home that was donated and was falling apart,” Leckey says. “One of the things we talked about with MNCAR was that we needed a new home for the camp director or we didn’t know if we could keep her. They saw the pictures of the holes where mice came in. It was awful.”
MNCAR launched a campaign to raise money for the project and The Opus Group donated $50,000, Leckey says. Opus demolished the old trailer and designed the new home. The company also provided project management and construction and helped with fundraising by encouraging employee donations and engaging subcontractors and vendors to participate in the project.
“A year and a half later, we had a brand-new modular home,” Leckey says. “Then in spring 2012, it needed a deck and porch and landscaping. So that spring, 30 MNCAR members came up with saws and tools. They built a porch on the front and a deck on the back. We planted flowers around the house. It was incredible.”
What’s currently happening in fundraising?
One Heartland held its biggest fundraiser of the year-- the Holiday in the Heartland Gala -- on Dec. 10 at the Loews Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The evening’s emcee was film, TV and theater actor Daniel Franzese while Season Two “American Idol” finalist Kimberley Locke provided the musical entertainment.
At the gala, they honored Joel Goldman -- the first managing director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation -- with the Founder's Award. Goldman is a former board member, volunteer and consistent advocate for One Heartland.
Leckey says it’s the kids that provide the inspiration to keep the organization, volunteers and fundraising going.
“At one point in 2008 when everything was so bad, we thought maybe we can’t keep this up,” she says. “There are a lot of bills and it takes a lot to run this. And I thought we can’t leave those kids out there. We owe it to them to fight and make this work and thanks to partners like MNCAR we’re still around. MNCAR is such a wonderful partner. We’re very grateful for them.”
Leckey points out that people can rent out the Willow River facility, which is a huge source of income for the organization.
Also people can go to their website to donate or view a list of volunteer opportunities. http://www.oneheartland.org/
“We’re always looking for volunteers in spring and fall,” Leckey says. “We always have projects that need to be done like getting bunks ready. Also, all of our cabins need new windows, and we’re trying to get windows donated. We’re trying to keep the facility up. Since we don’t have an endowment, it’s hard to keep the facility up and running.”
Posted at: 5:55 pm on December 30th, 2015