Toni Vaughn Heineman, Founder and Executive Director of A Home Within

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Toni Vaughn Heineman, DMH, is the founder and executive director of A Home Within. She is Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Francisco, in Psychiatry and has been in private practice in San Francisco, working with adults, children, and families for over 30 years.

Dr. Heineman consults with individuals and organizations and has been awarded a Leadership Fellowship from Zero to Three, a Draper Richards Social Entrepreneur Fellowship, a Social Entrepreneur Award from the Manhattan Institute, the national Jefferson Award for outstanding public service, and the 2008 Civic Ventures Purpose Prize, given to social entrepreneurs over the age of 60.

What (or who) inspired you to do the work you are doing?

Many years ago, when I was first in private practice, a little boy I’ll call Donny was referred to me for psychotherapy. He had been taken into foster care when he was found wandering the halls of a residential hotel where he had been staying with his mother until she was taken to jail. After a brief stay in emergency foster care, he was placed with a family that wanted to adopt him until the foster mother became seriously ill. From there he went to another foster home where he stayed until the family moved. After that he was placed with a family that lived more than sixty miles from my office and I lost touch with him. I did hear that he had not stayed in that family very long because of uncontrollable temper tantrums.

This sad little boy had his heart broken so many times that all he could do was rage. Donny’s story stayed with me. I knew that someday I would find a way to help other foster children in a way that I wasn’t able to help him.

In 1994, I founded the Children’s Psychotherapy Project – which grew into A Home Within – the only national organization dedicated solely to meeting the emotional needs of foster youth. We recruit licensed mental health clinicians who volunteer to see one foster child in weekly therapy – free of charge, and for as long as it takes. We have more than 500 active therapists who have already supported over 800 children, and provided over 2500 therapy years to this highly vulnerable population.

We believe that every foster child deserves to have a healthy, stable relationship with at least one caring adult. Being shuffled from one home to the next and bounced around in the system, foster youth at best struggle to trust adults and at worst often suffer from multiple psychiatric, behavioral, and substance use disorders.

By helping these kids and teens to break the cycle of chronic loss and address childhood traumas, therapy is often a transformative experience that reduces anxiety, stress, dissociate states, and many other symptoms – ultimately enabling them to become healthy, productive members of their communities.

What is your favorite movie and why?

My favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz because it has everything — good and evil, music with dancing and singing, and magic. And if that weren’t enough — Ruby Slippers!

What is the biggest policy challenge facing the United States and how would you fix it?

The policies that have created the extraordinary income disparities in this country are immoral. I don’t know exactly what I would do to bring back the middle class, but I know that we need to do everything we can so that, once again, the American dream of financial solvency is available to every family.

What was the last book you read? What is the most important thing you learned from it?

I’m reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. He makes me realize how little I understand about the intersection of the brain and the mind. He also reminds me that even though we can make a real mess of things, human beings have the capacity for astounding creativity. There is reason to hold onto my optimism.

How can people find out more about your work or get involved?

A Home Within recruits qualified therapists who volunteer to see one foster child, teen, or young adult in weekly pro-bono therapy. Our national network of volunteer mental health professionals serves foster youth through 50 Local Chapters in 22 states. Each chapter’s therapists are supported locally by a clinical director and consultation group leader, and volunteering has a number of professional benefits. Therapists who are interested in helping can easily contact us through our website, or request an Interest Packet on the Volunteer page. You can like us Facebook and follow us on Twitter. We can also be reached at (888) 898-2249. Of course, you don’t have to be a therapist to be part of A Home Within. We value and appreciate donations of time, money, and expertise.

What do you value about where you grew up?

I grew up in the Midwest at a time when the agrarian and industrial economies allowed families to stay in a community for generations. Everybody knew everybody, which made me a little crazy, but the continuity in relationships was a really important part of my childhood.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in your field?

Young people need to understand that making a difference in the life of even one person does help to change the world for the better. They should not be daunted by the scope of the problems we face. Above all, they should never underestimate the power of one.

What do you do when you are not saving the world?

You will find me in my garden. I’m soothed by recurrent cycles of blooms, the birds and insects that come and go, and the warmth and chill of the air that changes with the seasons. And there is something very, very satisfying about a few hours of weeding.