When Heidi Wong was in first grade, her parents enrolled her in an international school so she could learn English. Growing up in Beijing, Heidi spoke only Mandarin. Her parents, both investors, spoke several languages, but not English.
At first, Heidi struggled to keep up with her classmates who were native English speakers. “I was made fun of by some of the kids because I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” she said. Her parents helped by taking her to the library, where she would stare at children’s books in English for hours trying to connect the words with the pictures.
With time, she became fluent in English, and the children’s books later gave way to Edgar Allen Poe stories, Agatha Christie novels, and paintings by René Magritte and Jenny Saville. These supplied Heidi with endless hours of entertainment – but they also made her feel different.
“It seems like, especially in my school, people aren’t really passionate about subjects like art and literature,” she said. “In Beijing, people mostly study economics and business, and I think that since I was little, I’ve done things differently.”
When she was 13, a friend of her dad’s told her about a place called CTY. Intrigued, she looked it up online and read about its Summer Programs.
“I saw that they had a class on mystery writers called ‘Whodunit,’ and I was like, ‘I’m going,’” Heidi said. “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to Pennsylvania and I’m going to study literature.’ She was like, ‘Where is Pennsylvania?’”
Heidi enrolled herself in the CTY Talent Search, took the SATs, and then enrolled in the Whodunit? course as part of the three-week residential program in Easton, Pa.
When she arrived at CTY, she was “shy and awkward.” However, it only took “about five minutes” to make friends.
“Even though we came from different parts of the world, we all connected,” Heidi said. “The first thing I noticed when I first came to CTY was that no one was left out. I remember being in the cafeteria at Easton in 2012 when I saw a girl wandering alone, and multiple people, including myself, instinctively called out, ‘Come sit with us!’ That was the moment I realized how similar everyone at CTY is. We never exclude anyone.”
She went on: “Everyone is open-minded and you’re not afraid to say what you’re thinking. In class, your opinions matter and … it’s like our own little bubble that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Outside of class, the sleepovers were great, casino night was great, the dances were awesome. ‘American Pie’ … Oh my gosh, you’re just a family.”
She returned to Easton the following year, and it was like she and her old friends had never left. She also made new friends.
“I met an amazing RA who is practically my older sister and someone I trust with everything,” Heidi said. “We used to stay in her room and talk about everything from college plans, to songs we both liked, to life decisions, and anything else we could think of. Through these conversations I’ve come to realize that CTY isn’t so much about sitting in a classroom and doing academics for three weeks as it is about the bonds and friendships and lessons outside of the classroom that will last a lifetime.”
EXPRESSIONS OF HOPE
Somehow, between the classes, activities, and friendships, Heidi found time at CTY to start writing poetry. Her first poem deals with the wistfulness she was feeling before camp was even over. “When camp is over, there is a post-CTY depression,” she said. “I feel like I found a home at CTY.”
Now 17, Heidi finished up her last Summer Programs session last month. She also recently finished compiling a book of more than 100 of her poems that confront themes of love, death, sickness and loneliness. Last summer, she got in touch with a friend of her uncle’s, who suggested she publish her poems with Archway, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that specializes in self-publishing.
Her first book, “Sixteen,” was published in May. The reception has been positive.
“I used to feel vulnerable about having other people read my poetry, but now I have an Instagram account of my poetry with over 10,000 followers, and it’s crazy to think how it all started with CTY,” Heidi said. “I found my love for poetry at CTY, and I also found myself at CTY.”
Recognizing the importance of CTY in her life, Heidi decided to give the organization the proceeds from her book. In June, she made a gift of $15,000. Then she wrote about it on her Instagram page:
"So this is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. As an artist and writer, whenever somebody asks me ‘Who inspired that?’ 99% of the time, it’s not a “who,” it’s a “where,” and that place is a summer program called @CTYJohnsHopkins.
I can’t explain what CTY has done for me in a caption, but if you’re also a CTYer, then you know what I’m talking about. To put it simply, my CTY family has helped me survive quite literally. So this past year, in addition to publishing my poetry collection, I’ve been selling some paintings and tutoring younger kids, and decided to give all the profit to CTY so more people can be inspired by this amazing program. Although I am now too old for CTY and Easton, I hope someone else will be wearing my smile next summer.”
Heidi said her parents were behind her decision to donate. “My family donates a lot of money to good causes, and this is a community I really care about,” she said.
Margaret Walsh, CTY’s senior director for development, said Heidi’s gift is the first to come from a student who is currently enrolled in CTY. “We were amazed with Heidi’s incredible generosity and desire to help other bright students who are less able to afford a summer at CTY,” Walsh said. “It says a lot about her.”
Heidi will graduate from high school next spring. She plans to return to CTY and work as an RA with Summer Programs, attend college, live in New York City, and eventually become a painter or writer. In the meantime, she said she hopes her donation will afford more students the Summer Programs experience.
“I hope CTY can change the lives of more kids for the better,” she said.