Heidi Kuhn survived cervical cancer and made good in her promise to become an instrument of God in helping the needy. She received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2006 for her incessant efforts in turning “Mines to Vines.”
Founding Roots of Peace in Her Living Room
Princess Diana of Wales has just passed away and Heidi was hosting a cocktail event in her home in San Francisco California for a United Nations Association touring US lots of vintners. Jerry White, the same man who accompanied the late royalty throughout Bosnia, was in her living room. He was wearing a prosthetic leg which he did not hesitate removing in front of all guests. It sparked a conversation about a controversial topic—landmines.
Even before seeing Jerry White take off his prosthetic leg, Heidi was already a supporter of Princess Diana’s view of landmines having to be taken care of one way or another. What she never imagined was her part in carrying out that vision.
As she was giving a toast, she declared, “May the world go from mines to vines.” Everything just fell into place after that. Since its founding in 1997, Roots of Peace has championed the MINES TO VINES campaign in Afghanistan that turned landmines to vineyards, helping 10,000 farmers grow world-renowned Afghan grapes once more. Aside from farmers, Roots of Peace have also helped victims of landmines by introducing them to entrepreneurial approaches so they could become productive despite their lack of limbs.
Receiving the Skoll Award in 2006
Nine years since that eventful toast in her living room, Roots of Peace have grown into a respected non-profit organization. Heidi was presented the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, recognizing her holistic work in terms of improving the lives and circumstances of people living in places where atrocity is high.
Skoll Foundation listed the following as Roots of Peace's achievements in 2010:
- Removed over 100,000 land mines and impacted over 100,000 farmers and families; working in 20 or 34 Afghan provinces to provide alternative agriculture crops to poppies—doubling/tripling the income for Afghan farmers. Awarded USAID contract for $34 million in January 2010 to leverage our model throughout Afghanistan.
- Since September 1997, Roots of Peace has cleared thousands of acres of vineyards in dozens of villages —turning “Mines to Vines.” This year, we have de-mined Bastica and replanted 25,000 grapevines and 12,500 apple orchards in collaboration with the University of Zadar.
- Raised over 30 million “Pennies for Peace” since September 11, 2003 to build/rebuild schools and soccer fields on de-mined land in Afghanistan, as 44.6% of the population is under the age of 14 years. In Spring 2010, the ROP Penny Campaign will open a high school to educate 600 girls in Bamyan, Afghanistan. (Source: Skoll Foundation)
Career as NewsLink International CEO and Reporting for CNN, ABC, etc.
Before Heidi became a successful landmine activist, she went through ordeals in her life—first is having to leave her family and friends behind to come with her husband to Alaska and second is battling with cervical cancer.
Heidi Thomas was born in Marin County, California in 1968 long before concrete infrastructures were built in place of fields. Her grandparents were instrumental in the kind of affinity she would eventually feel for farming as an adult. She’s proud of her roots and always mentioned in her interviews that she is "a fifth generation descendant of pioneer family." She loved the land and the people she’s grown up seeing and being with.
She didn’t leave California even when she had to go to college. Heidi chose to take up Political Economics of Industrial Societies at the University of California at Berkeley. She married her college sweetheart, Gary Kuhn, on 14 February 1981. All her life, Heidi was content and happy being a wife to Gary and a mother to their three children.
In January 1989, Gary, who was working for IBM, was transferred to Alaska. Heidi did not take getting uprooted from California lightly. She wrote in an article:
“Motherhood is challenging enough, but with no friends and 23 hours of darkness, this took a bit of creativity and faith!
The packing company had gathered all of our earthly belongings from Marin County and checked the destination box "Foreign". This is when I knew that I was really in trouble, as they did not even realize that this was the 49th state! My homeland was referred to as "The Lower 48" and the mothers were more concerned about protecting their children from bears rather than kidnappers—since there was nowhere for them to go!” (Source: The Remembering Site)
Gary’s Alaska promotion took most of his time from family as he needed to train at Harvard School of Business for IBM Management Training. Heidi had no friends and her family was miles away. Without having much to do with the extra time in her hands, Heidi decided to get a part-time job and applied for an internship at a local TV station. She was immediately hired to do the weather forecast for the Six O'Clock Evening News.
Eight years following their marriage and gaining experience in broadcasting, she established NewsLink International and became its CEO. Heidi went on to cover the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill for CNN, ABC, CBS, FOX, and Nippon Television. Discovering that she had a natural flair for reporting, she decided going to the Soviet Union to do a story on the melting of the “ice curtain” between that nation and her country, the United States. She’s a mother and a wife so well-meaning people tried to talk her out of that risky plan. But she chose not to take heed of their unsolicited advice.
Off she went after numerous setbacks in applying for the elusive Soviet Union visa. Gary volunteered to be her cameraman and a trusted family friend who’s a nurse was left to care for their kids. The couple left the comforts of their home in December 1989 to go to a strange place where uncertainty awaited. As luck would have it, an existing ban for US reporters kept fellow American media at bay except for those coming from Alaska with whom the Soviets, for some reason, had a special relationship with. She never expected that the move she has dreaded so much would win her favors from the uncompromising Soviets. She was the first newscaster to report about the death of Andrei Sakharov. It was followed by more news stories from the most intimidating Soviet countries, such as Khabarosk, Sakhalin, Vladivostok, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
From Cancer Survivor to Landmine Activist
Long after she was back in Alaska from covering important news stories in the Soviet Union, she would again face danger. A doting mother to her kids, Heidi’s happiness mainly comes from beholding how her kids are growing up. She essentially lives for her children. That’s why she felt that the whole world was upon her shoulders when she was diagnosed with 4 1/2 cervical cancer.
“As the rain poured down outside our panoramic windows, so did the tears flow down my face. The same nurse told me that I was diagnosed with malignant cervical cancer. On a scale of 1-4, I was a 4 1/2 and had to fly to the Lower '48 for immediate treatment. I told her that this was impossible, as I had three small children. The doctor got on the phone, and explained that this was life-threatening. Silence.
As I gazed outside at the Mendenhall Glacier and the pristine snow-capped mountains above the Gastineau Channel, I realized that "each day is a gift". Peering into the eyes of my small children, I vowed to give something back to life if God granted me the gift of seeing my children grow up.” (Source: The Remembering Site)
That “something” came in the form of an organization meant to rid the ground of perilous landmines and ordnances. Heidi believes that her lifeline was extended because she’s meant to accomplish something in her lifetime. Along with seeing her kids grow, Heidi knew she is being called to do more.
Fast forward to the time when she had just miraculously given birth to Christian, her fourth child, despite her cervix being removed. Heidi was hosting an event for the United Nations Association whose members were talking to vintners about their business when the talks went from “vines to mines.” Princess Diana’s passing was still fresh and Jerry White, the man who accompanied former wife of Prince Charles to Bosnia, was one of the guests. He was wearing a prosthetic leg which he took off in front of everybody. Heidi then had the honor of hearing the story of how he lost his leg. Jerry is a native of Israel and he stepped on a landmine while walking around Golan Heights.
Heidi has heard of Princess Diana’s intention to get the government to implement stricter policies concerning the banning of landmine production and their removal. Raised with so much respect for the land, Heidi couldn’t agree more with Princess Diana.
As she called for a toast, she blurted, “May the world go from mines to vines.” It became her inspiration in founding Roots of Peace. It is created to eradicate the fear of stepping onto a landmine. With the fear gone, inhabitants could get their life back and use the deadly grounds for farming and other things like a children’s playground.
What Roots of Peace has Achieved
Growing up as a kid playing outdoors, skipping and running around to her heart’s content, Heidi knew how children in war-torn countries littered with landmines could have been feeling. One wrong move could set off an explosion and off goes a limb or two, sometimes the whole person. Jerry White is one of the fortunate people who survived a landmine explosion. Most of them get blown up into pieces. More than just dead, casualties are often unrecognizable and impossible to retrieve.
Roots of Peace first went to Dragalic, Croatia when they partnered with the United Nation's Adopt-a-Minefield program. They are the first organization that offered the UN assistance in their quest for creating a landmine free society all over the world. With the help of vintners, private companies, and businessmen, Roots for Peace was able to raise 400,000 dollars for the initial UN project in Croatia.
Clearing a field of landmine would cost a substantial amount of money. Two years after Roots for Peace was established, services cost 30,000 dollars to bring trained dogs to sniff the ground and get special field equipment to the place of retrieval. Not to mention the extraneous labor that all sums up to the exorbitant costs of clearing grounds with landmines and ordnances.
That is one of the major reasons why this problem was kept off the budget of the government of countries where they are present. Israel and Palestine for instance suffered years and years with people getting blown up time and again because the government did not want to shoulder landmine removal operations. The people had to shoulder the expenses themselves, which is just way above their means.
Roots of Peace does not only participate and fund retrieval operations but also lobby for policies that would bring this issue to the top of a country’s priority list. In 2007, while aboard Queen Elizabeth II, Heidi accepted a formal proclamation from the United Nations Environment Programme officially recognizing that “landmines are an environmental concern.”
When she was about to leave for Dragalic, she saw a sign on the wall of a North Face wall that read, "Never Stop Exploring." Thinking that it won’t apply in landmine filled countries, she spoke to the manager and enlightened him about the plight of people in Croatia. She went home with a car loaded with jackets and boots. Federal Express also helped them ship the items by donating 20,000 dollars, while AutoDesk software developed technology that would make locating landmines easier. It was that kind of collective effort that has kept Roots of Peace going for many years now.
In Afghanistan alone, they have helped 10,000 farmers get their lands back and plant premium grapevines in what used to be a landmine infested area. They are now recognized as the leading horticulture expert organization in the country. In fact, Roots of Peace is now headquartered in Kabul, Afghanistan with over 250 employees. Four of them are Afghans. Roots of Peace has field locations in Bagram, Gardez, Herat, Kunduz, Lash Kargah, Mir Bocha Kot, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kandahar. They are currently at work in all 34 provinces in Afghanistan to help the country get back on its feet. Their MINES TO VINES initiative has seen lives of farmers get transformed. On the other hand, the Demine-Replant-Rebuild Initiative in Husan is seeking “to replant olive trees, expand the homes of the large families living around the minefield, and construct their first playground for hundreds of Husan children who have no other place to play” after the demining process.
Heidi also championed the Penny Campaign to help the victims and aggressors of the 9/11 attack. Heidi’s not taking sides but it doesn’t mean that she’s condoning the terroristic act that took the lives of her fellowmen. What she was after is sparing the children from a lifetime of pain and suffering by securing for them a better future. As Cheryl Jennings said:
“The Roots of Peace Penny Campaign has the potential for changing lives of children who are the recipients and those who are the donors. Children in heavily mined countries will be able to walk safely once the land mines are removed, so they can go to school to learn and reach their full potential. Children who donate to the RoP Penny Campaign learn they can make a difference in the world and become good citizens just by donating a simple penny. It’s the power of those collective pennies that can change lives forever.” (Source: Roots of Peace)
From its humble beginnings, Roots of Peace is now one of the most successful organizations in terms of landmine removal. Heidi was awarded by the Skoll Foundation for her Social Entrepreneurship in 2006. It only goes to show that Roots of Peace is offering scalable and realistic goals and had so far delivered in its promise. In 2010, the USAID entrusted Heidi’s organization with a grant of 30.4 million dollars—the largest amount given to a non-profit organization—to fund CHAMP or Commercial Horticultural Agricultural & Marketing Program and AGRED or Afghan Agricultural Research Extension Development. Roots of Peace has completed Bam Saray High School's construction in the same year.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Roots of Peace
- Roots of Peace Afghan Girls Soccer Team
- Penny Campaign
- Bam Saray Girls High School
- CHAMP Program
- Mines to Vines
- Mir Botcha Kot
- Green Kabul
- California Wine Industry
- United Nations
- United States State Department
- Warner Brothers
- Palm, Inc.
- Mines Advisory Group
- HALO Trust
- Mine-Free Israel
- Association for Civil Rights in Israel
- Center for Regional Councils
- Council for a Beautiful Israel
Awards and Achievements
- 1989-1995: CEO of NewsLink International
- 1996: Awarded a Gubernatorial Appointment to the California Council of the Humanities
- 1997: Founded Roots of Peace
- 2002: Received the Cal Berkeley Alumni Award for Excellence and Achievement
- 2006: Received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship
- 2007: Received Spirit of Marin Award from Bank of Marin
- 2007: Received the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Public Service
- 2007: Accepted a formal Proclamation from the United Nations Environment Programme, officially recognizing that “Landmines are an environmental concern”
- 2009: Gets invited to the meet the Congressional Delegation at US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan
- 2010: Roots of Peace gets approval from Vietnamese government as am American NGO
- 2010: Roots of Peace received 30.4 million dollar grant from USAID
- 2010: Bam Saray High School's construction completed
- 2011: Roots of Peace was honored at Nowruz by US and Afghan officials
- First reporter given the story of Andrei Sakharov's death
- Removed over 100,000 landmines
- Trained some 10,000 Afghan farmers to grow clusters of grapes
- Raised funds to help Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovena, Angola, and Afghanistan
- Received an award from the WANGO World Association of Non-Governmental Award for Peace & Security, The “Walk the Talk” Award from UN World Environment Day, The Rotary International “Service Above Self” Award, the Spirit of Marin Award, and The Marin Women’s Hall of Fame Award
- Reported for CNN and ABC on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the Melting of the Ice Curtain between US/Soviet relations
Wikipedia (Roots of Peace)
Roots of Peace (Heidi Kuhn: Founder & Chairman of the Board)
LinkedIn (Heidi Kuhn)
Skoll World Forum (Heidi Kuhn)
Journal of Mine Action (Heidi Kuhn, "A Harvest of Hope: Roots of Peace Celebrates 10 Years.")
The Remembering Site (Personal History for Heidi Kuhn)
Earth Light Library (Sharon Abercrombie, “From Mines to Vines”)
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action (Dhyan Or and Heidi Kuhn, "Clearing Minefields in Israel and the West Bank")
Google Books (Ingrid Newkirk, "One Can Make a Difference: How Simple Actions Can Change the World")