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Jon Heymann has spent his career working with young people, ranging from gang members to children in poor communities. He has been executive director of the Jacksonville Children's Commission since Aug. 26 after heading up Communities in Schools.
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jun. 25, 201412:00 PM EST

Workspace: Jon Heymann went from being abandoned as a child to helping children

by: Marilyn Young

Jon Heymann’s biological mother carried him in a bread box to the Athens Children’s Asylum in Greece.

The asylum’s doctor signed the infant's death certificate, so if anyone asked about Heymann they could say he died.

Then his mother walked away, leaving him in the hands of monsters.

For the first five years of Heymann’s life, he lived in the asylum with other abandoned children. It was within walking distance of the Parthenon, from where Heymann recalled swiping rubble and stealing from tourists.

They were forced to be swindlers and thieves, just like the children in “Slumdog Millionaire.” They were horribly abused and sentenced to a life of hell by those who ran the asylum.

But at age 5, Heymann caught a life-changing break.

An American woman, Lois Heymann, volunteering in Greece for a feeding program for the poor changed Heymann's life.

She and her husband, who already had a son, decided to adopt him and an infant girl. They paid for someone to escort the children on a flight to the United States. But in one last swindle, the person put the kids on the plane by themselves and kept the money.

So, Heymann and his baby sister arrived at LaGuardia Airport by themselves.

But from then on, they were not alone.

They joined their parents and older brother, then later welcomed a sister who was adopted from Korea. The four children are within six years of each other.

Heymann acknowledges his lifetime of working with children is likely a result of those years in the asylum. He knows the scars a bad childhood can bring, but he is proof that bad years, like those he had in Greece, can be overcome.

He’s counseled gang members in New Jersey, helped dropouts in Palatka receive their GEDs, worked with a consortium in 12 rural Florida counties and helped build Communities in Schools programs in Palatka and Jacksonville.

When the job as executive director of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission came open, Heymann was asked by a couple of board members to apply. But he was happy at Communities in Schools, which had grown from a $1.5 million operation to more than $8 million in his time there.

He didn’t apply during the first search for the Children’s Commission’s job. When no candidate was selected, he didn’t apply for the second search, either. Still no candidate was selected.

He applied the final day of the third search and became one of three finalists. That began a four-month process, including a series of interviews that were public. “That part was strange,” said Heymann.

Ultimately, he was selected and began his new job Aug. 26. The commission is a $23 million department, which includes the $4.7 million it received when taking on several Jacksonville Journey programs.

Heymann has a good relationship with the City Council, which restored nearly all of the cuts city agencies were ordered last year to make in the budgeting process.

The council also approved $172,000 this month to pay for 460 more children to attend a five-week summer camp, bringing the number of children in summer camps to 5,400.

When he goes before council this year, he will be asking for an increase partly to pay for staff to handle the Journey programs absorbed by the 42-person commission staff.

Heymann has spent the last 10 months building a team on three cultures:

• Experts: “Tell me what you bring to the table that no one else does,” he said.

• Expectations: Looking at everything the commission does with results in mind.

• Enthusiasm: “I want people who enjoy coming to work,” Heymann said.

Heymann wants to grow the commission, including its Team Up program and mental health counseling. He also is considering an incubator program offering seed money to nonprofits to try an idea that’s not being done anywhere else.

All of those can help lead to new ways to help more children. To give them that break they need to be successful.

And Heymann knows what a difference a break can make.

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