John Heilman: A Founder of West Hollywood Who Has an Impact on Children in Malawi

John Heilman in 2018 visiting the school near the city of Blantyre in Malawi that is operated by the Jacaranda Foundation.

West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman is known for his work for various nonprofits and social causes. He’s a past president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and currently serves on the board of OutRight, which advances LGBT causes across the globe.

A lesser known but equally important organization Heilman works with is the Jacaranda Foundation, which helps educate orphans in the nation of Malawi in southeastern Africa.

One of the poorest countries in Africa, Malawi, with a population of 18 million, has been especially hard hit by HIV and AIDS. An estimated 14% of the adult population of Malawi has HIV while about 500,000 children are orphaned as a result of the disease.

It is those students orphaned by AIDS or born with HIV that the Jacaranda Foundation serves. It’s a multi-faceted organization that provides free education to about 400 students at the Jacaranda School, while also offers related support to the surrounding community.  

Jacaranda Foundation founder Marie Da Silva, who started the school in 2002, was named a CNN Hero in 2008, an award given to “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world.” As part of being named CNN Hero, Da Silva was featured in a news special honoring those people.

Heilman happened to catch that CNN report and was intrigued. He had helped a friend who had done a church fundraiser for a project in Malawi, so the Malawi connection piqued his interest.

“I thought, ‘Wow! That’s an amazing organization. Wouldn’t it be cool to connect Marie to this other organization to see if there was a possible partnership’,” Heilman recalled during a recent phone interview. “I tracked her down by email and said, ‘It’s really an amazing story with what you’re doing. If you’re ever in Los Angeles, let me know.’ She replied back immediately, ‘I’m in Los Angeles all the time’.”

Turns out Da Silva had worked as a nanny for actress/talk show host Ricki Lake. She had used the money earned from being a nanny to help start the Jacaranda Foundation.

Heilman and Da Silva met for coffee and quickly hit it off. He invited her to speak at a World AIDS Day event in West Hollywood and later invited her to join his team at AIDS Walk.

“Marie is the real deal,” Heilman reported. “When you meet her and hear her story, you know that she’s in this for the right reasons. She lost 13 or 14 members of her family to AIDS. She lost her father, her brother, her sister-in-law, aunts and uncles. Her family was devasted. That was really the impetus for her when she realized there were kids there with no family and no place to go to school.”

As their friendship continued, Da Silva invited Heilman to join the Jacaranda Foundation’s board of directors. The ten-member board fundraises for the school and also meets via teleconference every two months to provide direction in terms of both programming and expansion.     

Heilman outside the Jacaranda Foundation School

“It’s been amazing to see the growth,” said Heilman who has been on the board for the past ten years and now serves as board secretary. “We’re expanding beyond the school into the community. We’re now building libraries in public schools in Malawi. We opened a physiotherapy clinic for kids, which they didn’t have. We’re building a vocational school and a preschool.”

That’s an impressive amount of growth for a school that Da Silva opened just 18 years ago while working as Lake’s nanny. She learned that the school in her hometown outside of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial center, was about to close. She persuaded her mother to let students use their family home as a school, while sending much of her nanny salary to support it. She also persuaded other nannies she knew to donate to the school.

Having lost so many family members to AIDS, Da Silva wanted to provide the children who had lost parents to AIDS with a quality education. She chose the name Jacaranda Foundation because of the jacaranda tree her dying father could see from the window of his hospital room. On the Jacaranda Foundation website, Da Silva explains that the jacaranda tree symbolizes life, growth and hope, important symbols for the students.

“The students at our school are all orphaned as a result of AIDS,” explained Heilman. “Being orphaned in Malawi means they’ve lost one if not both of their parents to AIDS. A fair number of our students were born HIV positive.”

The school, which teaches the equivalent of the American grades one to twelve, does not have any dorm rooms. Most of the students live with grandparents or other relatives. They come from the immediate area, most living close enough to walk or bike to school.

John Heilman with a student at the Jacaranda Foundation’s school in Malawi.

In addition to a free education, the school provides the students with daily meals. The school also teaches skills such as sewing; students learn the skill while sewing their school uniforms in the school’s sewing room. Students have also learned to create solar-powered lamps so they can study at night.

“Our students are now graduating, scoring high on the national tests, going off to college,” Heilman said proudly. “It’s really been transformative, not only for those students but the area around. Obviously, everyone wants to go to this school because the results are incredible. It shows people the possibility when you invest in kids and I think that resonates with people.”

One of the most important things the Jacaranda Foundation has done for the surrounding community is create a physiotherapy clinic a block away from the school.

“The physiotherapy clinic primarily serves people not going to the school,” said Heilman. “If people were injured, they didn’t have anyone to help them with rehabbing until the clinic opened. If they were born with a disability, there wasn’t anyone to help them learn to walk, if that was a possibility for them. So, that’s something that we established two years ago now.”

In exchange for bringing kids to the physiotherapy clinic, Jacaranda offers a micro-loan program which gives people money to start a home-based business or grow an existing business. That way, they have resources to care for their children as well as the disabled child.

This year, the Jacaranda Foundation board arranged for some student scholarships to colleges outside of Malawi, including colleges in the United States. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, those scholarships are now in question since it’s unclear how colleges will operate in the fall.

Yes, the coronavirus is affecting Malawi. Heilman reported the country is on lockdown.

“There are no flights in. All the schools [in Malawi] are shut down,” said Heilman, who visited the country in December 2018. “Their health care system is precarious even in the best of times. They couldn’t cope with a widespread epidemic.”

Even though the school is not in session due to COVID-19, the Jacaranda Foundation is feeding its students and their families, providing maize or corn and beans for meals. Additionally, they’re using the school’s sewing room to make face masks for the households.

“I think during these times, we understand that what happens in other countries affects us,” said Heilman. “I think it’s important for us to care about what’s happening elsewhere. How every small contribution can go a long way there and can make a difference.”

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