Lysa Heslov Empowers At-Risk Youth to Become Global Citizens

by Kyle Thompson

In May 2013, while standing on the credibility of the most respected magazine planted beside gum and candy bars at the supermarket checkout, Joel Stein of Time magazine deemed the Millennial generation “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” Perhaps the most damning stat Stein invoked to support this criticism was his reference to sharp declines in scores on tests of empathy beginning in the year 2000: “Not only do Millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding others’ points of view.”

As a member of said generation, I wish I could flat out disagree, but I am all too aware of the narcissism and owed-ness to which he refers — to some degree, these descriptors accurately depict me. Somewhere between our lack of face-to-face interaction and excess of self-centered, status-updating, my generation has become a bunch of “slackivists,” ready to support a cause they believe in as long as it doesn’t require anything beyond clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook or becoming a follower on Twitter. But when poverty, genocide, pollution and starvation persist so consistently that they show up in news segments as regularly as the weather, our world needs active leaders, not social media followers.

Photo by Scout Hebinck for Blindfold Magazine

Enter Lysa Heslov, founder of Children Mending Hearts (CMH), an organization that works to empower at-risk youth to become global citizens. Founded in 2008, CMH seeks to “directly engage the youth of America in global children’s causes where they can positively impact the life of another child and ultimately realize their potential to effect change both in their own community and around the world” (CMH website).

Working primarily with middle school and high school kids, CMH conducts art exchange workshops and afterschool art programs that combine education on global issues with creative, hands-on projects such as drawing, painting and photography. Although based in Los Angeles, CMH has hosted art exchange workshops, where at-risk children create art and write letters to send to children struggling in other parts of the world, that have benefitted children both domestically and internationally. 

While society often casts aside those born without privilege and opportunity, Heslov and the many hardworking people that make CMH possible see a gem of hidden potential in at-risk youth. I got a chance to sit down and speak with Heslov to learn more about what makes CMH special.

I arrived at Heslov’s lovely Los Angeles home on a Saturday afternoon, armed with a photography crew and small entourage. Warm and welcoming from the moment we walked in, Heslov greeted us with a friendly smile and refreshments. 

Photo by Scout Hebinck for Blindfold Magazine

We immediately noticed an expansive and breathtaking painting of a young African girl in a wedding dress above the fireplace. Outside, a giant trampoline, a vine- covered terrace and a raised garden bed provided evident signs of youth and joy. A commercial-free playlist of classic rock played subtly in the background as Heslov curled up with a glass of wine on one of the sofas, and we began the interview.

Like many powerful ideas for change, Children Mending Hearts is the lovechild of passion and plight. Knowing that she wanted to work with children, Heslov earned a Master of arts in child development and began thinking of ways that she could help children grow up with compassion and empathy for other children. While brainstorming, Heslov was learning more about the genocide in Darfur, which helped spark the idea for her first project with CMH, a transatlantic transaction of compassion. 

“We had at-risk kids here make kites for kids in Darfur, and I took those kites to Darfur, and we had kids in Darfur make kites for kids here.” The art exchange was a success, providing an empathetic connection, a tangible relationship between people distanced by geography but not by spirit. From this initial art exchange, CMH continued to bloom, developing afterschool curricula and workshops that combine creative expression with global education, designed to leave students with the motivation to help struggling, underprivileged children, just like themselves, in different countries. 

“My philosophy is that we are all the same and we should all be treated as the same, and there’s no difference between a gang member in the South Side of Chicago and a boy soldier that’s killing people at the age of nine.” Having already impacted the lives of thousands of children, CMH continues to help raise a new generation of socially conscious youngsters, one not limited by its resources but empowered by its ability to put them to good use.

Photo by Scout Hebinck for Blindfold Magazine

Children Mending Hearts’ afterschool programs are not your typical art classes. Students may show up to learn about dance, music, drama, or drawing, but they leave with more than just an appreciation for the arts. They become accidental learners, engaging with global issues that affect children around the world. For example, during one photography class, students learned the fundamentals of photography — light, shadows, etc. — while also studying Haitian culture and the struggles that many Haitians face on a daily basis. By infusing a normal photography class with an exploration of the ways another culture survives and thrives, CMH ingeniously endows their students with a glimpse of the wild world that lives beyond the walls of their city — a world that most at-risk youth will never get to experience firsthand. Free for students, CMH classes indirectly teach the valuable skill of taking on another’s point of view and feelings, i.e. empathy.

In fact, empathy is Heslov’s not- so-secret weapon for empowering at-risk students. As an antidote to the hopelessness, myopia, and apathy that can plague the disenfranchised, empathy is at the core of CMH’s programs and workshops. 

The hope is that children who grow up with the ability to empathize will be more likely to find their voice for change through service rather than violence or self-destruction. Knowing that some of her students will one day come face to face with the unfortunate ability to empower themselves with weapons, Heslov encourages at-risk youth to make more constructive life choices or, as she quipped, to “shoot with a camera instead of a gun.”

At its core, Children Mending Hearts cultivates hope; not the campaign buzzword or the vague greeting card concept that comes printed next to a bouquet of daisies, but real, measurable hope. As children engage with other cultures and learn about their struggles, the seemingly insurmountable problems of the world become less daunting, less hopeless. The CMH website writes, “If a homeless child creates something for a child refugee who doesn’t just have a hole in his/her shoe, but is shoeless, then this disadvantaged child goes from victim to victorious.” 

By just imagining walking in the shoes — or walking with the lack thereof — of those even less fortunate than they, the at-risk youth at CMH begin to appreciate the things they do have, including the power to help those that have nothing. This empathetic thinking constructs the framework for a whole new way of perceiving the world, one that is hopeful and motivating. “When they start understanding other cultures and they start understanding that they can make a difference, they become more empathetic human beings. They’re not necessarily going to make a decision which they might have made in the past.” With this newfound perspective, CMH students can begin to define themselves as being at-the-service of community rather than at-risk of being swallowed up by urban blight.

To ensure that their afterschool programs are working as planned, Heslov and her organization keep track of student development. “We’ve really seen a huge difference in our kids. We’ve started tracing our metrics, and they’re going to school more, they’re more excited about school, they’re getting in fights less, they’re less likely to join a gang.” 

Keeping kids in and interested in school is crucial when considering that graduating from high school dramatically increases a young person’s ability to succeed. The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that American high school dropouts are four times more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates, and that dropouts disproportionally populate prisons, with eighty-two percent of inmates having never finished high school. So while CMH students will still have to face difficulties in life just as they would without their empathetic education, they are better equipped with the hope and confidence needed to persevere and make more productive life choices.

A young girl once approached Heslov after spending months studying CMH inspired curriculum and proved to Heslov that the program was worthwhile and effective. She, being no more than 9 or 10 years of age, wore tattered clothes, an unkempt appearance, and an air of courage as she reassured Heslov that she and her fellow classmates were going to help others around the world in need. “Don’t worry, Lysa,” the little girl declared, “we’re going to take care of them.” It’s moments like these that remind Heslov that she is in the right profession and that all her hard work and vision have developed into something special and meaningful.

Children, like spotless mirrors, sharply reflect both the good and bad found in the world they inherit. Therefore, we are all role models for future generations, given the job of passing on what we believe to be good and right. While this task is a challenging one, we cannot ignore its importance just because it would be easier in the short run. And while in an ideal world we wouldn’t have war and conflict zones, and there aren’t any child soldiers or starving millions, ignoring tragedy doesn’t make utopia a reality. In an ideal world, organizations like Children Mending Hearts don’t even need to exist. 

“My dream is that we close one day,” remarked Heslov, affirming her belief that non-profits with their hearts in their place should want to go out of business, working to completely eradicate the problems that sparked their creation. In the meantime, while pain and strife define the lives of millions, our best chance at bringing about peace and prosperity is to raise our future generations as global citizens, both aware of global problems and optimistic about their solutions.

As the interview came to a close, I found myself in rare form — the world appeared more rose-colored. 

My typical cynical outlook had been shaken up, a strong testament to the optimism and compassion that Heslov’s story and organization inspire — the same inspiration that CMH students must feel after leaving the classroom. When it’s so easy to become inundated by the landslide of bad news that comes pouring out of each and every media outlet, the spirit of Children Mending Hearts is uplifting. If at-risk children can become advocates for change, if those who have very little can feel empowered to help those who have next to nothing, then surely I can do my part to ensure that the world we are handing our youth moves them to become hopeful and compassionate leaders. Perhaps Stein’s next piece won’t criticize a Generation’s Apathy, but will praise a Generation’s Empathy.