June 14, 2007 – It’s About Giving Post
The two-hour season finale of ABC Television’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which aired Sunday, May 20th, featured Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Camp Heartland as the recipient of a renovated facility for their camp near Albany, New York, along with a new home for a Camp Heartland family.
With the season finale show reaching an estimated 20 million viewers in the United States and hundreds of millions more around the globe, Camp Heartland has received an overwhelming outpouring of support. Within hours of airing, nearly 12,000 individuals visited the website, nearly 200 times as many visits to the site as the previous week. More than 95 percent of these views were from new visitors to the site. In addition, more than 700 emails have poured in, offering support or looking to Camp Heartland as a resource.
“I am truly amazed at the tremendous response we’ve had since the show aired yesterday,” said Neil Willenson, founder and CEO of Camp Heartland. “We knew this would be a great opportunity to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, and we are so honored and awed at the immediate response we’ve received from people wanting to help. We are thrilled that so many have been made aware of Camp Heartland and can take advantage of our resources, thanks to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the generous outpouring of support the show has elicited.”
Camp Heartland, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth and their families facing HIV/AIDS, poverty, grief and other painful life challenges, has a year-round camp in northern Minnesota with headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
About The Build
Earlier this year, after receiving a plea for help from one of the camp families, a single mother and four children whose house was literally sinking into the ground, Willenson nominated Colonie, New York-resident Debbie Oatman-Gaitan for the “extreme makeover.” A decaying foundation had caused the Oatman-Gaitan home to sink about two to three inches each year. Walls were shifting and cracking, doors wouldn’t close and there were gaps surrounding the windows. Oatman-Gaitan was terrified of the effect her home was having on her four children, three of whom are adopted with multiple disabilities and two who are HIV-positive. Amidst all the obstacles she had overcome in her life, this was one challenge Oatman-Gaitan could not tackle alone.
Over the years, Camp Heartland has been a resource for Oatman-Gaitan and her sons. Three of her children have attended Camp Heartland in Minnesota, but unfortunately one child is afraid to fly and has been unable to participate. To make Camp Heartland’s program more accessible, Willenson contacted Clearpool Education Center in Albany, New York to rent their facility for the summer. However, the facility was in need of a few renovations in order to adequately host the special needs of the Camp Heartland campers. Coincidently, just a few days later, the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew showed up at the Oatman-Gaitan’s doorstep, announcing that the family’s home would receive a makeover, and necessary renovations would be made to the Clearpool Education Center for hosting Camp Heartland.
“We couldn’t believe the timing,” said Willenson. “Thanks to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, this renovated facility will make it possible for Camp Heartland to serve more than 250 additional children and family members this summer.” In total, more than 1,000 children will be served by Camp Heartland in 2007.
In addition to the camp facility, the new 3,700-square-foot home will give Oatman-Gaitan a safe and happy place to raise her children. For the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition designers, the week-long undertaking left a lasting impression beyond the scope of the building project.
“We were there to build a house for a family in need, but beyond that our hope was to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS,” said designer Michael Moloney, who took part in the build. “This family has been through so much, and there are so many people out there who are dealing with the same thing. We hope that our viewers will be inspired by this amazing story and encouraged by the support that Camp Heartland provides to families such as the Oatman-Gaitan’s.”
Featured Partners – Canvas on Demand and Artists Eric Waugh and Adria Willenson:
Artist Eric Waugh was a natural choice to paint a 12-foot by 36-foot mural for the new Camp Heartland recreation center. Waugh has been involved with Camp Heartland for 12 years and being one of the camp’s biggest supporters made him a perfect fit as the artist to paint a mural during the show. Waugh worked with designer Michael Moloney to determine the mural placement in the stage area of the new recreational facility and then it was up to Waugh’s artistic instincts, which lead to him to create a mural titled “Four Seasons of Fun.”
The mural depicts children playing at camp during each of the four seasons. For nearly 36 hours, Waugh (www.ericwaugh.com), and Adria Willenson (www.adriawillenson.com), Neil’s wife and a muralist in her own right, painted around the clock, often times having to stop and come back in order for flooring, molding and lighting volunteers to complete each phase. To see more visit their web sites for more information the artists.
Tom Lotrecchiano and Joe Schmidt, co-owners of Canvas on Demand, have been friends of Camp Heartland and Eric Waugh since they worked together on the “World’s Largest Painting” project to benefit Camp Heartland in 2001. Canvas On Demand committed to produce 1,000 reproductions of the “Four Seasons of Fun” mural at their expense, contributing 100 percent of purchases directly to Camp Heartland. For more information or to purchase a mural, visit Canvas on Demand (www.canvasondemand.com).
About Camp Heartland
Camp Heartland is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth and their families facing HIV/AIDS, poverty, grief and other painful life challenges. Founded in 1993, Camp Heartland has become a year-round community making a life-long impact for hundreds of children and their families. Year-round programs such as camp reunions, newsletters and holiday mailings, youth retreats and life enhancement programs reinforce young people’s sense of belonging and well-being on an ongoing basis.
In 1991, Neil Willenson, a native of Mequon, Wisconsin, was 20 years old and a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was majoring in TV/Film and, upon graduation, had plans to seek a career as a feature film producer in Hollywood. All that changed, however, when Neil read the headline in his hometown newspaper: “AIDS hysteria in Mequon.” A young boy with AIDS named Nile Sandeen was entering kindergarten in the small town of Mequon, and the community was up in arms. Fear and prejudice filled the air. At the center of all this controversy was a five-year-old boy who only wanted to go to school, who only wanted a chance to make friends.
When Neil read this story in his hometown paper, he knew he had to get involved. For the next two years, Neil got to know Nile. He got to know Nile’s brother, Sean, and his mother, Dawn Wolff; an entire family affected by AIDS in the center of America’s heartland. Neil compared his own life-history in Mequon to Nile’s. On the sidewalks, streets and in the schools of Mequon, where Neil had found joy and friendship, Nile had found only isolation and despair. Fear, ignorance and prejudice had turned what had been a heartland for Neil Willenson into a wasteland for Nile Sandeen.
In 1993, Nile turned seven years old. Like millions of other children, more than anything, he wanted to go to summer camp. He wanted to run; to play in the sun with kids his own age. He wanted to sit around a campfire at the end of a day filled with fun activities and sing silly summer camp songs in the dancing firelight – to eat breakfast in a dining hall ringing with joy and activity.
A Life-Changing Mission
And so in 1993, inspired by Nile Sandeen, Neil Willenson founded Camp Heartland – a summer camp program that accepted both children infected with AIDS and children who were affected by the disease. The camp was equipped with state-of-the-art medical facilities able to handle the special needs of immuno-compromised campers. It was a summer camping program where children living with HIV/AIDS could step out of the shadows of secrecy into the light of openness and honesty – a place where they could have the best week of their lives.
During that first summer, 73 children with AIDS were welcomed to Camp Heartland at a rented campsite in Wisconsin with funds raised by Neil Willenson and a few dozen college students. After five years of renting campsites around the country, Camp Heartland in 1997 purchased its own, permanent home: The Camp Heartland Center in Willow River, Minnesota.
Set amidst 93 wooded acres in Northern Minnesota, with access to three lakes and miles of wilderness trails, the Camp Heartland Center is an extraordinary haven. It is a light in the darkness for children who live every day of their lives in a thickly shadowed world of chronic illness and discrimination.
— Mueller Communication