Kathy Eldon overcame tragedy by helping others tackle challenges

After losing her journalist son in Somalia, Kathy Eldon started a foundation that's touched the lives of millions.

Marilyn Jones
Kathy Eldon founded the Creative Visions Foundation partly to honor her son, Dan Eldon, a photojournalist who was killed in Somalia in 1993. CVF has supported 90-plus projects, including 15 documentary films. It helps filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, environmentalists, and others.

Anyone who knows Kathy Eldon will tell you to beware – she just might change your life. The filmmaker, activist, author, and foundation chief executive officer says that in a world that often sees unlimited challenges, people instead need to "see limitless possibilities."

Already a filmmaker living in London when she lost her photojournalist son, Dan Eldon, in Somalia in 1993, Ms. Eldon decided to honor him by starting the nonprofit Creative Visions Foundation (CVF), which supports creative artists and sponsors projects that have touched the lives of millions.

She founded CVF partly to commemorate Dan and his remarkable body of work, which includes paintings, drawings, and sketches featured in books and galleries around the world, as well as in a collection of his journals, whose title is an anthem for his generation: "The Journey is the Destination."

CVF is a force for social activism across five continents. Since 1998, it has supported more than 90 media and art projects, helped produce 15 documentaries, and touched the lives of 30 million people. CVF assists filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, environmentalists, and social activists of all ages who want to use their talents to tackle challenges in their communities.

Eldon also has written 20 books, including her soon-to-be-published memoir, "In the Heart of Life."

Making things happen started early for Eldon. After graduating from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., she went home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to await a Peace Corps assignment. Instead she accepted a marriage proposal and moved to London with her British husband, Mike Eldon.

Kathy gave birth to Dan in 1970, and a daughter, Amy, in 1974. Frustrated because so few jobs were open to women in her chosen fields of TV and publishing, Kathy turned to writing children's books.

When Dan was 7 and Amy was 4, Mike's company transferred him to Nairobi, Kenya. "Moving to Africa transformed me," Eldon says. "That was when my life exploded into a Technicolor dream." She worked for famed anthropologist Richard Leakey and his brother Philip, while her children went to an international school.

Eldon kept writing, everything from guidebooks to cookbooks. She also worked as a journalist and in other jobs, absorbing a lesson that has served her well. "People in Kenya were 'creative activists,' " she says. That meant "you didn't wait for other people to approve. You just did it."

That no-limits attitude sank in with her children, especially Dan.

Kathy and Mike eventually divorced. Dan, then a teenager, stayed in Kenya with his dad, while Amy and her mother returned to London. Broke and depressed, and after a period of prayer and reflection, Eldon awoke one morning and announced, "I had a dream I should start a company called Creative Visions." She knew she had found her calling: to use media to bring about social change.

Soon she found herself sitting with Harry Percy, the Duke of Northumberland, in Syon House, "one of the most stately houses in Britain," she explains. Together, her production company and the duke's went on to coproduce "Lost in Africa," a feature film about elephant poaching.

Then, suddenly, life went upside down.

In July 1993, Eldon received a phone call: Her photojournalist son, Dan, had been killed, stoned by a mob in Somalia while on assignment for Reuters. He was 22 years old.

Eldon knew immediately that she wanted to do something in his memory. Within two months, she and Amy helped create a book and traveling exhibition displaying photographs taken by Dan and two others who died with him for Reuters and The Associated Press.

The exhibition, which highlighted the dangers photojournalists face in war, traveled to six countries. Four presidents presided over its openings. Today, nearly 20 years later, the exhibition still travels to libraries, galleries, and schools.

Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, recalls the first time she worked with Eldon and Amy. They came to her when Ms. Mitchell headed Ted Turner's documentary department. "They had an idea to do a documentary on Amy's struggle with her grief about Dan's death and the dangers all photojournalists face in war zones," Mitchell says.

That documentary, "Dying to Tell the Story," won several awards, and CNN continues to air it annually.

Mitchell and the Eldons worked on five more films. "She's taken the greatest loss, her child, and turned that grief into something positive – but not in a morbid way," Mitchell says. "When I think of Kathy, one word comes to mind: authentic."

Another Eldon admirer, Wynette Jameson, a journalism teacher in League City, Texas, describes the impact "Dying to Tell the Story" had on her: "It changed the way I teach journalism."

Today, Eldon says, she's excited about getting out of bed in the morning. "I'm full of joy because I have so much purpose. We can overcome. We can choose our dance."

• To learn more, visit creativevisions.org.

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