The Extraordinary Backstory of Model, Activist, and Philanthropist, Karin Taylor
“There is no such thing as a small project. The thing you think will have the least impact could have the most.”
Karin Taylor, one of Florida’s top philanthropists, is making a difference in the lives of at-risk youth, foster children, and veterans through hands-on equestrian therapy programs and the charitable Weisberg Family Foundation. With a possible TV show on the horizon and an upcoming Thanksgiving event benefiting people in need, the future is brighter than ever! Karin is an expert on parenting, animals, entertaining, and Equine Assisted Learning.
Karin established the Weisberg Family Foundation, a private innovative philanthropic organization, to help those in need through volunteerism and financial aid. Karin’s incredible programs include the Academia de la Esperanza (Hope Academy) in the Dominican Republic, Vanessa’s Wish, the Charitable Children’s Program, Kids’ Camp, and the Homeschool Connection. In 2012, the foundation set up a trip to Universal Studios (FL) for 60 underprivileged children in the area. The Weisberg Family Foundation aims to inspire others to volunteer with their family and engage with their partner organizations. Ultimately, the foundation would love to duplicate their programs statewide to benefit others.
What is your “backstory”?
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and grew up in Orlando, Florida where I danced for Walt Disney World in the Electric Light Parade. Although I had no problem performing I was always a very shy kid. Performing in front of crowds was easy; talking to people one on one was not. Despite these interesting quirks in my personality , I always knew I wanted to make a difference and that I would end up in Hollywood, although I had no idea how I would do that, having only appeared in one school play. When I was a junior in high school, a teacher suggested to me that I pursue a career in modeling after high school. It just didn’t seem possible to someone as shy and dateless as me. I certainly never felt particularly beautiful but I couldn’t get the suggestion out of my head. I remember I would sit in my room and look through magazines featuring model, Kara Young, and wonder if it could ever be possible for me to actually become a model. Fast forward and one day I’m living in NYC and Russel Simmons calls to tell me that he’s standing on the street corner with Kara Young showing her a picture of me in a magazine at the newsstand. How did we go from me looking at pictures of Kara Young to her looking at a picture of me, in a magazine — -with Russel Simmons?!
After working in Los Angeles for a year and guest starring on several shows I met my husband and made the choice to leave California and pursue my greatest dream, to become a mother. However, motherhood didn’t come as easily as I had hoped and I found myself undergoing IVF treatments that were emotionally and physically taxing, but would ultimately lead to the birth of our twin boys, followed by two girls.
I’m not really sure what inspired me to homeschool our children. I had never known a single person who homeschooled, but I found myself diving into motherhood and embracing home education, which I loved. I have always been a researcher at heart with an ‘all in’ personality so I fully embraced homeschooling and studying how children learn, which eventually lead to me obtaining my degree in Montessori Education. After the birth of our 4th child I continued to feel a pull towards having more children and we made the decision to adopt our 5th child and later in my early 40’s I attempted another IVF cycle which unfortunately lead to the loss of our daughter Hunter, due to Trisomy 13. Losing her left me with a sadness and depression I had never experienced before and I found myself wondering what I could do with this experience and pain. Together, with my husband, I decided that I would embark on a life with horses which lead to buying our 20-acre equestrian farm in Jupiter. I have always had a passion for animals, children and teaching and it was through this new endeavor that I not only found healing but a new purpose in my life and a farm full of animals.
Looking back I can see the ways that my life experiences have developed me for what I believe is now my life purpose. A career in modeling and entertainment gave me the skills I needed to present myself and my programs to others confidently, as well as giving me a platform to do so. Homeschooling was instrumental in helping me develop our educational programs such as Hope Academy, the school and library we built in the Dominican Republic, and our literacy program, The Free Library Initiative.
My path and struggles to become a mother gave me an awareness of adoption, which led not only to us adopting a child, but inspired us to provide financial assistance for others who would not otherwise be able to afford adoption. This experience also later opened our eyes to the needs of Foster Children in our community, and lead to our ongoing involvement with Place of Hope.
The loss of our daughter Hunter opened me to horses and their incredible ability to bring healing to hurting hearts. It also made me more aware of the struggles parents of special needs’ children have and is the basis for some of the programs we offer and my desire to obtain PATH certification.
My love of animals and ‘all in’ personality led to learning animal husbandry, animal training, liberty work with horses and developing our Unbridled Power Program utilizing a variety of animals to help others.
I believe that everyone is uniquely created for a purpose and has the ability to impact others and change the world. We each come with a unique set of talents and life experiences that shape who we are. There is nothing about my childhood that would have led me to ever imagine the life that I now have. I certainly never thought I would have an opportunity to do the things I’ve done during my career, meet the people I have or become a part of meaningful projects that could have such an impact on others. That’s why I feel strongly about providing volunteer opportunities for young people in order to show them that they can make a difference in the world and allow them the opportunity to experience empathy and service. I believe we all have a desire to make a difference; some of us just take a little longer to find our way.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
On a modeling job in Africa I was sharing a tent with another model at a Safari camp we were shooting at in Zimbabwe. We both had a sort of dark sense of humor and so at night we would lay in bed and point out to each other how completely unsafe it was for us to be sleeping in a canvas tent in the wilderness. One night it suddenly occurred to me that the portion of our tent that led to the “bathroom” was an opening in the tent surrounded by a 6’ wooden fence. I pointed out to Jamie that this could not be safe because couldn’t a lion just jump this small fence and come in? She helpfully pointed out that my bed was closest to the opening so I would be the first to be eaten. Just then we heard something circling our tent and a low growl. We were both petrified with fear. Suddenly there was a louder growl and more frantic running. A few moments later we heard screaming coming from the models in the other tent and Jamie and I imagined the worst. Peeking through the gaps in the fence we heard the workers at the camp calling to each other and saw lanterns moving towards us. It turns out that it was indeed a lioness tracking a water buck through the camp and it had tripped over the tent straps causing the other models’ entire tent to come down on them, hence their screaming. During this trip we had many other interesting and near death experiences including me running to the food tent to meet up with the crew only to come face to face with a large male elephant who ended up chasing me to the river where I had to climb down the cliff to safety and sat there alone in a canoe while the elephant stared at me from above and I thought about how many people are killed by hippopotamus each year. Modeling is a dangerous business!
Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes, I have several really amazing projects that I am working on right now. First, is the Free Library Initiative which provides free quality children’s books and a bimonthly storytime program to children in K-4th grade at the Salvation Army Community Center in West Palm Beach. The purpose of the program is to inspire a love of reading, develop literacy skills and to encourage children reading at home by providing free books to build their own home library. This program is important because a student who cannot read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate high school by 19 than a child that does read proficiently by that time. If you add poverty to to the mix then that child is THIRTEEN times LESS likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient wealthier peers. Statistics also show that children whose families are below the poverty time are less likely to be read aloud to than children whose families are at or above the poverty line. This program is part of a planned 5-year research study and I’m very excited about the opportunity we have to make a difference.
Another program I am equally passionate about is our Unbridled Power program which consists of an Equine Assisted Learning program using the behavior of wild horses to teach essential life skills and a Sensory Petting Zoo program that explores the body language, vocal communication and behavior of various animals and the parallels it has to how humans communicate or work out differences. We are currently using this program with at-risk youth and children in foster care and have plans to open the program in spring 2018 to Veterans suffering from PTSD or the effects of service. What I love most about animal assisted therapeutic programs, such as EAL (Equine Assisted Learning), is that it is not only innovative but is backed by scientific research, which I find extremely fascinating and exciting. What makes our EAL segment unique is that we actually use 3 Mustangs gathered from the wild by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have been gentled and trained. The BLM houses all off-range (un-adopted or unsold) wild horses and burros in either off-range corrals or pastures at a cost to tax payers of nearly $50 million per year. This gives us a unique opportunity to help both the human and the horse. By utilizing these amazing horses in our programs we bring awareness not only to their adoptability and their plight, but we also educate the public on how Equine Assisted programs, such as ours, are helping youth and adults across the country.
Research has shown that playing with or petting animals can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease levels of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. Contact with non-threatening animals has been proven to be calming, therapeutic and can reduce stress. The hands-on activities in our Sensory Petting Zoo program encourage sensory regulation, lessons in behavior and communication and model a variety of life skills such as: attachment, empathy, setting healthy boundaries and respect. There are a number of research studies showing the benefits of animal assisted therapy with children with special needs, such as autism, or who have suffered traumatic experiences during childhood. Chickens have even been used successfully in nursing homes and are becoming popular as therapy animals. Many studies have looked at the value of therapy animals in institutional settings. Although the reports are largely anecdotal, they do show that chickens can be particularly useful in easing the agitated behaviors that accompany dementia, help with loneliness and even give elderly residents a job and sense of purpose in caring for them. In the spring, we will be offering chickens to local nursing homes who would like to have a community coop for their residents as well as offering visits to our farm.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
There was a young girl who was adopted as an older infant who suffered incredible neglect prior to her adoption. When she was 3, she was diagnosed with radical attachment disorder. Working with miniature horses, chickens, donkeys and a therapy dog opened the door for her to learn to trust, become aware of her own body language and the way her actions (or even thoughts) affected others, and provided her with a safe environment to explore empathy and giving and receiving affection in a healthy way.
We have seen autistic children and special needs’ children who show very little engagement; develop a light in their eye and a presence when they have an opportunity to interact with an animal. Once a non-verbal girl with autism said her first word at age 10 while she was on the back of a horse. It was an emotional moment for her mother and every volunteer involved.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t try to do it all yourself. Look for other likeminded organizations to partner with. We could never have launched the projects we have launched as quickly as we have or as affordably if we had not partnered with other likeminded organizations. By working with an organization, such as The Salvation Army, that is already serving at-risk youth and veterans we were able to combine resources and provide our programs within their existing structure, doubling the impact.
2. There is no such thing as a small project. The thing you think will have the least impact could have the most. One year we took 60 foster children on a VIP Tour to Universal Studios for Spring Break. It was not part of a long-term program but rather just an opportunity to give them a unique fun experience and a chance to temporarily forget about their struggles. Five years later we were shooting a video at our farm and one of the young men on the crew looked familiar to me. I never forget a face so I knew I knew him but couldn’t put my finger on it. About thirty minutes into shooting I remembered he was a part of our trip to Universal. Not wanting to embarrass him or identify him to his coworkers as a former foster child, I casually said, “Hey, I think we were on a Universal Studios trip one time.” He paused and stared at me and then got the most enormous smile on his face and said, “That trip was the greatest experience of my entire childhood and I cannot thank you enough.” I was floored. It was so great to see him doing so well after aging out of Foster Care. But it was truly humbling to know that one trip could have made such an impact on him and even 5 years later he regarded it as the greatest experience of his childhood with an enthusiasm that made it seem like the trip was last week.
3. Ask for help. Since we are a foundation and not a charity we don’t depend on donations from others to fund our programs. Still, volunteers can make a big difference in what we do. I was speaking to the founder of another organization we work with and I complimented her on the tremendous outpouring of volunteers she always has at her events. She laughed and said; since money was always tight she learned early on not to be shy about asking for help. I’ve since learned to ask people to volunteer and the response has been terrific. I wish I had learned to ask for help sooner!
4. No matter what you do, you cannot please everyone or serve every need. For me, this was a hard thing to come to grips with. You don’t expect to be criticized when you’re out there trying to make a difference, and likewise it can be disheartening to know that there is more need than you are able to serve. A friend encouraged me to think about a lifeboat. If a lifeboat can hold 50 people and you put 60 people in it, they all go down. So you have a choice. You can save 50 people at a time or none.
5. It takes time to build a team. I tend to be an “all in” kind of girl and when I get an idea for a program I immediately start trying to put it together. I am not one to sit around and talk about what I’d like to do one day. I tend to get working on it right away. As our projects have grown, so has my need for others to join the team to make those projects possible. It can be frustrating waiting for the ‘right’ people but when you get them, it’s amazing how much more you can accomplish. So have patience. That’s what I keep reminding myself.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
That’s such a great question. Right now I would have to say that I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Dolly Parton because she is so down to earth, seems like a straight shooter who tells it like it is, comes from humble beginnings, is not bothered by what others might say about her, has an incredible sense of humor and never ceases to amaze me with her generosity and willingness to help others or launch a project to fill a need. I think she would certainly make me laugh while imparting a lot of wisdom and sound advice too.
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