“Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it now. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
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Kathy Eldon: mother, teacher, journalist, author, film and TV producer and founder of Creative Visions, “a global organization that supports ‘creative activists’ who use media and the arts to ignite positive change. CVF was inspired by the life of Kathy’s son, Dan Eldon – artist, adventurer and activist – killed in 1993 while on assignment for Reuters New Agency in Somalia. Dan was 22.
When I first met Kathy Eldon we were both grieving. I was mourning my Dad and Kathy, her son Dan. Though my Dad’s passing was in the proper order, Kathy never made me feel like my grief was less than hers.
I wanted to understand how this woman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa transformed a profound loss into an expansive, joy-filled life that inspires others to live big too. Maybe the answer can be gleaned from her favorite Kahlil Gibran quote: “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”
I caught up with Kathy at her Malibu home, where she had just arrived after a full day of meetings and phone calls focused on nurturing the many projects and productions supported by Creative Visions.
WENDY: How would you introduce Kathy Eldon?
KATHY: “Well, I’d say that she’s completely mad, but she believes in people and that’s a good thing. She spots possibilities that others don't always see in themselves, and after she has pointed them out, individuals often believe in their power to do things they never thought possible.”
Kathy explained that her son Dan, too, had often seen great potential in those around him, and that when he was killed, the people he believed in were devastated, feeling that without his encouragement; perhaps they couldn’t achieve their full potential.
When asked about her mother, Amy Eldon Turteltaub replied, “My mother has the extraordinary ability to see the light in each and every individual she encounters. She is the most successful person I have ever met because she gives out so much goodness and she gets it all back in spades. I truly feel lucky to be anywhere near her, let alone to be her daughter.”
|Amy, Kathy and Dan (Kathy Eldon ())
WENDY: Does any experience stand out as the one that propelled you into this adventurous, global life?
KATHY: “I was very lucky. My father managed to take our family on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which was a life-changing experience. Before that trip, I was a fussy eater, existing on peanut butter sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. So not only did I have to change my eating habits, but I also had to be open to all kinds of experiences I had never imagined possible. A highlight was visiting Moscow at the height of the Cold War when Americans were viewed with enormous suspicion. A few weeks later we landed in Berlin as the Wall was going up. Traveling exposed me to philosophies and concepts that had not even entered my mind. It also instilled a life-long desire for adventure.”
At 16, Kathy applied for a scholarship as an American Field Service foreign exchange student, and to her surprise was assigned to an Afrikaans-speaking school in South Africa. Even though the country was in turmoil, with Nelson Mandela recently on trial for his life, Kathy’s parents were brave enough to tell her to “go for it.” Upon her arrival at the school, she had to begin learning in a new language, equipped only with 300 words that her mother had drilled into her from a Berlitz guide.
Her host family wasn’t typical: the mother was of British descent, the father was an Afrikaner and his brother, Bram Fisher, was a liberal lawyer who had saved Nelson Mandela from being sentenced to death during the notorious Rivonia Trial.
“Because of ‘Uncle Bram’s’ defense of Nelson Mandela,” Kathy recalls, “the Secret Police tapped our phone, and watched our house. It was a very tense situation.” After a seven-month stay, Kathy spoke fluent Afrikaans, and had grown to love her Boer classmates, though she didn’t agree with their political views, which supported Apartheid, one of the cruelest systems ever designed to keep races apart. Upon her return to Iowa, Kathy gave 70 speeches about her experiences in Africa, and in each one described her belief that one day a bloodbath would throw the country into chaos.
Many years later, Kathy and her husband Mike encouraged their 19-year-old son Dan, to follow his dream of bringing aid to a refugee camp in Malawi. He launched “Student Transport Aid,” and together with 14 friends, raised $17,000 to build wells, buy blankets and buy two vehicles for the eight-week journey from Nairobi to Malawi. The trip was to change all of their lives, as documented in “The Journey is the Destination,” a collection of Dan’s journal pages.
When I asked her why she let her son and 15-year-old daughter Amy go on such a dangerous mission, she explained that it was a very different era, and Dan’s heroes included several intrepid individuals who had driven across Africa as teens. (Philip Leakey)
|Dan Eldon in Africa (Creative Visions Foundation ())
WENDY: What was Dan really like?
KATHY: “Dan was an ordinary kid who grew up with an extraordinary view of the world around him. He was very fortunate, as he got to experience the International School of Kenya along with kids from 42 countries. When you’re in an environment where everyone is from a different country, you stop being prejudiced about race or religion and start accepting people for who they really are.” And that’s a gift that Kathy shares. She sees people and makes them feel like they matter, as though she has known them for years.
I wondered if Kathy’s amazing intuition had sharpened after Dan died. But she says it had actually been unleashed when she was a young mother living in suburban London. Reading Shirley MacLaine’s book, “Out On A Limb,” introduced the concept that there could be another unseen dimension. A few years later, Kathy met a psychic medium named Rosemary Brown, who had been featured on a BBC documentary. “One day,” Rosemary said, “you’ll understand that spirits really do exist and you’ll share your knowledge of another dimension with the world.” At the time Kathy says she was far too busy to think about communicating with dead people.
But when Dan was killed, Rosemary’s prescient words came flooding back when Kathy visited a medium, who immediately began channeling guidance from a young spirit who seemed remarkably like Dan. “Dan’ gave me a list of things I was to do: write a book, make a film and start a foundation in his name to help children. I felt totally overwhelmed and cried, ‘Dan, why on earth do you think I can do this?’”
Kathy still recalls the medium’s response. “Don’t worry Mum; You’ll have the help of your ‘team spirit,” and I’ll be as close as an angel on your shoulder. Remember, most people have to live through their children, but I have to live through you.”
WENDY: Oh my gosh, that makes me cry.
KATHY: “I believe Dan was a messenger and that his life- and all that has happened since his death, proves to me that there is another dimension and that we can communicate with those who are no longer physically with us. We can use that knowledge to help us heal our relationships with one another and also heal our planet.”
WENDY: Last month, 23 years after Dan’s tragic death, The Journey is the Destination (a dramatic film about his life) premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. Those of us lucky enough to be there were left stunned at the end of the movie. There was not a dry eye in the house and people were hugging each other and connecting like old friends, even though many had just met. I know this was a long journey for you. As one of the producers on this film you needed lots of faith and perseverance. What did you do when you were discouraged, or frustrated??
KATHY: “That's a really beautiful question. They say that as you get older, you become more content and less drastically down or up. I am ridiculously up when things are going well, but there have been some very hard times in the last few years. I was devastated when we were seven weeks away from our film’s start date and we lost $1.5 million of our funding.
In those moments we can spiral down, and sometimes I do. But I try not to stay there. I try to envision a solution- and work backwards towards it. I strongly believe in the power of our thoughts and words to create our future.”
|Kathy Drawing Remembering How to Fly (Kathy Eldon ())
WENDY: Do you have quotes or books or affirmations that help get you through?
KATHY: “I have shelves of inspiring books that encourage readers to find the courage, resilience and strength to convert whatever the situation is into something that can be positive. I loved reading Feel the Fear and Do it anyway, Living in the Light, Creative Visualization, Marianne Williamson’s Course in Miracles, and so many others.”
Kathy is full of gratitude for her life, “I work in the most extraordinary place, “ she beams. “The Dan Eldon Center for Creative Activism is really like being in a village. Every person has gone through challenges, but we all support one another. As the character of Dan says in the film, ‘Connection is the solution.’ You don't have to be out there on your own. We can weave a web of relationships and they will be our salvation. We can't just ‘take', but we also have to give. For me that’s the fun part.”
WENDY: What would you tell people going through a tragic loss? Obviously you are not going to bounce back up from the floor the first week, but…
KATHY: “Not even the first year, or the second. It takes time. For me it was always about transforming loss into something positive, but I had to go through a period of profound grief. I don't think it's healthy to just pave over the sadness. If someone gave you joy, losing that person is going to give you sorrow. So experience it- but try to keep moving through the grief to find peace and joy again. There are people who have lost a child, a partner, lover or friend who never recover. I didn't want to be that person, defined by loss. I wanted to honor Dan by creating something positive in his name.”
Kathy believes in the power of inspired stories to ignite positive change. “As a young journalist in Kenya,” Kathy explains, “I saw how my articles could lead to action. But once I was on the film set of OUT OF AFRICA, I realized that if we really want to communicate to large audiences, feature films worked better than newspapers. So I launched Creative Visions Productions and became a film and television producer.”
Her first film was a feature on ivory poaching in Africa. Seven years later, she and her daughter Amy opened Creative Visions Foundation to support other impact producers, “creative activists” who use media and the arts for social impact.
|Cover for her book IN THE HEART OF LIFE (Kathy Eldon ())
WENDY: How do you decide who and what projects to accept into the Creative Activist Program of Creative Visions?
KATHY: “We have a selection process based on how much impact we believe a project can create in the world. One of my favorites is Video Volunteers, founded by Jessica Mayberry, then a 24-year-old Oxford graduate who wanted to teach illiterate Indian women how to tell stories through video. We helped her create the concept of VIDEO VOLUNTEERS, and she flew off to India. Supported by a dedicated board, Jessie trained videographers to tell stories about the challenges they face in their villages. She launched a channel and now Video Volunteers is one of the largest producers of community-based videos in India.”
Kathy says that the essence of Creative Visions is the concept of creative activism- the use of arts and media to ignite positive change. To that end, Creative Visions provides service grants that include access to skilled mentors and online tools and resources that help people transform their ideas into media projects. Most importantly, creative activists join a global network of like-minded people who believe in the power of arts and media to ignite positive change.
“I love working with the creative activists in our program,” Kathy says, “especially Slater Jewell-Kemker, who joined our program at the age of 13 when she began working on a film she called AN INCONVENIENT YOUTH." This coming-of-age story about the rise of the global youth climate movement takes on the most critical issue in the world today, climate change. “I've watched Slater travel the world, camera in hand., trying to wake people up to the challenges of climate change. Slater has been on an incredibly difficult journey--with no compass and no guide, because nobody has ever tackled these issues from a young person’s point of view.”
WENDY: Do you have a quote you live by?
KATHY: “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it now. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” It’s attributed to Goethe, but it was actually written by William Hutchinson Murray.
WENDY: What are your dreams for the future?
KATHY: “I want The Journey is the Destination film to be a vehicle to ignite a global movement of young people to believe they have a role to play in transforming the world around them. My dream is that we can catalyze a revolution of thought and consciousness in this world.”
WENDY: Final question. Where does your amazing energy come from Kathy Eldon? I'd like to bottle that, thank you very much.
KATHY: “It’s in my genes! My father played tennis till 93 and died at 99. My mother followed him soon after at the age of 98. My parents were very positive people, who embraced people of all cultures- and lived lives that valued service above all else. That philosophy fueled them – and me.”
Thank you Kathy. You are such a joy and inspiration to me and to all those lucky enough to know you. I invite everyone to get to know you a little better by clicking on this short clip from Kathy Eldon on her autobiography In the Heart of Life.