Neil Willenson

Power Promoter of Human Achievement

At age 15, Neil Willenson BS 1992 raised money to alleviate homelessness.

At age 17, he was the youngest-ever candidate for Wisconsin State Assembly. He lost.

At age 21, he studied filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin. “My life plan was to be an actor,” he said. “I was going to make movies and make millions.”

At age 22, Willenson was a UW senior with a kind heart. And he made a friend.

Back near his hometown of Grafton, Wisconsin, Willenson befriended a five-year-old boy, who was born HIV-positive. When the boy wanted to attend summer camp and was turned away, Willenson created a solution: Camp Heartland, where children affected by HIV/AIDS were welcome.

It was a first-of-its-kind community, and for the next decade, Willenson was CEO. He grew Camp Heartland into the internationally known One Heartland — raising $45 million, and serving more than 3,000 children and families with life challenges at three locations in Minnesota, New York, and California.

Willenson credits his UW education for giving him the skills to found a national organization, but as he told a graduating class, he’s learned more important lessons from the young campers. These children, he said, were not expected to live: “And they knew it. So they lived their lives differently — with more urgency, with more impact, with more zeal, with more gratitude.”

Willenson’s work earned a range of recognitions: from the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Forward under 40 award to Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award to GQ Magazine’s “Local Hero of the Year.”

Willenson moved on from his executive role at One Heartland in 2011, but his social activism didn’t end. He’s cofounded a summer camp for children of military personnel who died in service; speaks with youth and community groups to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS; and shares inspirational stories through Power of Humans.

Two new ventures combine Willenson’s nonprofit expertise and Hollywood know-how: he directs Milwaukee-area philanthropy for Kapco Metal Stamping, and with a local recording firm, he helps nonprofits to connect with celebrities for a boost of star power.

And as chair of its Founders Council, he still rallies for One Heartland.

“These children have taught me that, despite great adversity, there is a power of human achievement,” he said. “I’ve seen time and time that human beings, even the youngest of children, have the ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to find value, and meaning, and happiness.”