Eileen O’Neall: Restoring Hope Overseas Through the Arts

by Nathan Foster

One trip changed the trajectory of Eilen O’Neall’s (’12) life. During her junior year at Azusa Pacific University, O’Neall went on a Center for Student Action (CSA) trip to the Himalayas. O’Neall, who majored in music education and performance, was on the way to teach music classes at a Mother Theresa home in Kolkata when she saw a blind boy begging for change. “He was singing and he had such a beautiful voice,” O’Neall recalled. “That was my first time seeing the effects of human trafficking. It was an eye-opening experience.”

Many children like this in the region and across the world are intentionally harmed by adults because they’re likely to earn more as beggars if they have disabilities. “I learned that his eyes had been damaged on purpose. This didn’t sit well with me and I knew I had to respond,” O’Neall said. After returning to California, she began to research the problem and what was being done to fight it. “I asked myself, what can I do as a music educator? How can I help solve this problem?”

O’Neall made it back to South Asia after finishing her undergraduate studies at APU. “The reality of the vulnerable children I had encountered in the Himalayas never left my mind,” she said. O’Neall decided to found a nonprofit organization, Creative Hope International, with a small group of artists, all connections from APU. They led music and dance camps in countries in South and Southeast Asia with high rates of human trafficking. The camp made an impact in the lives of these children. “Girls that had been rescued from abuse and trafficking got to learn how to express themselves through dance, reclaiming their bodies for something beautiful. It gave them so much confidence. The counselors said it was amazing to see how big of a contrast there was in the girls after the camp.”

Although the group was limited by their school schedule, including O’Neall who was pursuing her master’s at Cal State Long Beach, they traveled across the world again the following year to continue the camp. After finishing her master’s, O’Neall moved to South Asia and the work with Creative Hope International became a full-time job. Since then, the nonprofit has expanded with a team of local staff in the Himalayas and a long-term partner in Southeast Asia. They’ve helped more than 1,000 people since 2014 through teaching singing, musical instruments, folk music, and dancing. “We believe love and creativity changes oppressive minds and systems. When people create, they can embody justice, beauty, and hope,” O’Neall said. “Music and the arts provide a powerful avenue for healing, restoration, and empowerment. We’re giving students channels of connection where they can realize their potential and have a better future.”

A large part of the impact O’Neall is making through her nonprofit is a result of the music education she received at APU. From being a part of the University Choir and Orchestra to participating in CSA mission trips, O’Neall said she was equipped for her current work through her time at APU. “I really loved my ethnomusicology class. It’s especially useful for my instruction today because it explores music in different cultures. Classical western music isn’t as appropriate in South Asian music classrooms,” she said. “The music education classes had us do a lot of observation and participation type of learning, which was really helpful.” While her music classes were vital to her current teaching, one of O’Neall’s biggest learning moments came in her Christian Life Faith and Ministry class with Michael Bruner, PhD. “I realized that being who God called me to be is Christlike.”

Faith plays a major part of O’Neall’s life and work. “I believe that God loves all people, especially these vulnerable children. My faith enables me to keep going and face challenges with confidence,” she said. “My work is 100 percent based on His faithfulness and His promises.” O’Neall said she has seen many examples of God moving in the Himalayas, including stories of her students letting go of negative and oppressive labels. “I catch a glimpse of the story God is weaving, and I love seeing how God’s love changes people’s hearts and lives.”

Nathan Foster ('20) is the public relations manager in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.