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A Heart For Helping

Featured Photo from A Heart For Helping

Thanks to this local family, what began as a community service initiative at Heathrow Elementary School has blossomed into Lake Mary’s newest nonprofit to aid neighbors in need

With a career in television news and running two fitness centers behind her, Michelle Wilson could have easily settled into a comfy life as a PTA mom in our community. But personal circumstances – and her strong conscience – led her down a unique path.

Michelle, who lives in Heathrow with her husband and 11-year-old-son, has embarked on a mission of philanthropy, devoted to making life a little better for children and families who have been dealt a rough hand. When she was PTA president at Heathrow Elementary School, Michelle instituted Heathrow Hearts, a program that gave Heathrow students the opportunity to help economically disadvantaged children. Today, Michelle is behind the even more ambitious Hearts, Hands and Hope, a new nonprofit organization designed to help struggling families.

Michelle’s desire to reach out to other families stems largely from a difficult situation in her own life. When her son, Aidan, was four years old. he had been an active and communicative child, but suddenly,  “there was something different about him.”
“His eyes turned dark,” says Michelle. “It was like there was nothing inside there. My husband [Eric] and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve lost our son.’” It would take some time before Aidan was formally diagnosed with autism. Today, Aidan is doing well at Pace Brantley in Longwood, a school designed for students with special needs.

The family has made Florida home since 2008, but Michelle was raised in Buffalo, New York, where the winters are not so gentle. Michelle was a news producer at a Buffalo television station when she met Eric, a meteorologist at a competing station. The couple eventually moved to Detroit, where Michelle managed two fitness centers and served as health producer for a  local TV station.

The Wilsons landed in Central Florida when Eric got a job as a TV meteorologist. Currently, he teaches sports media and marketing at Full Sail University in Winter Park. And while Michelle was afraid of missing the seasons up north, she has grown to love the beaches and theme parks. She served four years as PTA president at Heathrow and was also Exceptional Child Chair on the Seminole County Council PTA.

Aidan was lucky to have strong advocates when he ran into difficulty at Heathrow. But it occurred to his mother that there were children and families at adjoining schools who may not have all the support they needed, whether their struggles were with disabilities or simply economic hardship.

“I saw a lot of kids who weren’t getting help,” Michelle remembers.

Through Heathrow Hearts, the school began partnering with Hamilton Elementary to provide such basic needs as books, school supplies, toiletries, socks, and underwear. Michelle said it was the students at Heathrow who really rallied behind the effort, encouraging their parents to help out.

“It didn’t matter what neighborhood it was, it was kids helping out other kids,” Michelle says.

In addition to the monthly “heart drives” of supplies, Heathrow Hearts has also held events such as anti-bullying and stranger-danger programs for kids.

While she is no longer at the school, Michelle and her husband used Heathrow Hearts as a springboard for the aforementioned Hearts, Hands and Hope (HHH). Established just a few months ago, HHH plans to take the idea of the Heathrow-Hamilton relationship and extend it throughout the county and eventually beyond.

Deena Biewend, sponsorship director for HHH, says it is partnering with Seminole County Public Schools to serve as a connection between families in need and those who want to contribute.

Deena, the mother of three daughters, befriended the Wilsons while both families were at Heathrow Elementary. She has taken over the leadership of Heathrow Hearts and says the success of that program will help Hearts, Hands and Hope get off to a strong start. Deena marvels at Michelle’s spirit.

“Michelle opens up her heart to every single person she encounters,” says Deena. “She gives way beyond the time she has. Her husband is the same way. She’s just amazing.”

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