HALO, the Kansas City based non-profit that offers guidance, counseling and art therapy for hundreds of orphans around the world, was founded by a determined young woman who, before dedicating her life to helping poverty stricken children, was an actress, model and world-champion Taekwondo practitioner.
Rebecca Neuenswander Welsh, said founder, credits the success she achieved in martial arts with helping her grow HALO, Helping Art Liberate Orphans, from the germ of an idea into a global charitable organization. “I was used to hearing people dismiss my karate aspirations and then I became world-champion, so when at first they dismissed HALO I thought whatever, I had the confidence,” the all-American beauty says during a stop to visit the HALO center in Denver before flying to Mexico to visit one of the many orphanages she works with.
Rebecca’s philanthropic leanings first surfaced during a trip to Honduras when she was 21. “The first time I witnessed poverty like they have in the Third World I was so upset, I cried so hard I threw up. I saw packs of kids living in the street with warts, cuts, hair falling out from sun damage. They were infested with chicken lice, which eat their scalp, it was disturbing.”
Rebecca returned from that trip so distraught her parents thought she was depressed. She threw herself back into teaching martial arts, all the while telling people that she wanted to return to South America to help. “They would say that I was so cute wanting to save the world. A couple of years later it started.”
The adults in Rebecca’s life may have dismissed her ambitions but the kids were listening. After hearing her horror stories Rebecca’s karate students threw a fundraiser and raised $5,000 for an orphanage in Mexico. Rebecca was inspired. “A light bulb went off that we had sent an entire orphanage to school, it was such a great moment for the kids and their parents in knowing that they could make a difference.” The next fundraiser organized by Rebecca’s karate kids raised $40,000 and HALO was born.
“The first time we picked an orphanage in Mexico I literally had the Yellow Pages in my hand and just started calling and asking them what their budgets were and what their needs were,” she says.
The art in HALO came about as a result of Rebecca’s initial naïveté in dealing with orphans in developing countries, some of who have been horribly abused. “Kids in these places are rocking in the corner crying, they don’t want to be touched, they hiss at you,” she explains. “They’ve often just been dropped off on the front porch with no idea what their past is. I tried lots of things to try and make them open up. One day I went to a store and bought paints and paper and sat at a table by myself coloring and slowly, after a week, one by one they came to the table. Obviously they hadn’t done this before since they were coloring outside the lines,” she laughs.
Through art Rebecca learned that the kids could reveal things about their lives that they weren’t comfortable with expressing verbally. “We ask kids to paint what they want to be when they grow up and they look at us like we’re crazy, they can’t imagine themselves tomorrow, let alone in the future. To get them to think like that, help them communicate and dream, and it can make them realize that they can reach those dreams.”
Now in it’s fifth year, HALO has grown to working with orphanages in Africa, Mexico and South America and has five branches in the states. “The domestic centers are different because we have the foster care system here; we go into each community and see what the missing link is,” Rebecca explains. “We partner with organizations such as homeless shelters and residential care facilities, we hold educational workshops, we give them tools to get out and make a difference. We want kids to know that HALO is a safe haven.”
As with any non-profit, Rebecca spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with the practical aspects of keeping the business going, and is reliant on the generosity of over 150 volunteers who, like HALO’s founder, are unpaid. “Growing HALO is solely a matter of getting funding, so fundraising is a huge part of it, and it’s knowing that $10 can pay for a meal for an entire orphanage that keeps me going,” she says.
That Rebecca Welsh’s determination can lead to success is obviously not up for debate. After all, she turned an obsession with karate into a world championship. That she is devoting her efforts to helping the orphans of the world can only mean great things for those children in need.
- Adam Pollock
For more information on HALO visit: www.haloworldwide.org