Orgs focus on youth, poverty

Rosie O’Donnell & Broadway Kids

When O’Donnell first saw 10-year-old Doug, he was doing his best as the lead in a school production of “Sweet Charity.”

“He was so shy he would only look at his feet,” O’Donnell says. Despite O’Donnell’s cheers of, “Come on, Doug” and “Doug man, it’s in ya,” the young thesp couldn’t get the volume.

Last month, four years later, at a charity performance at New York’s elegant Cipriani restaurant, Doug delivered a powerful solo that knocked them dead. “He stood up there and belted this song like a Broadway regular,” a proud O’Donnell says. “I just started to cry. I looked at the teacher and said, ‘Now that’s a miracle.’ ”

Doug is one of Rosie’s many Broadway Kids, who belong to the after-school org that’s dedicated to enriching children’s lives through the performing arts. “We go to the poorest fifth grades in Manhattan with a 17-week program,” O’Donnell says. “It’s like summer camp. The kids are exposed to musical theater, dance, ballet, choreography, composing.”

This November, O’Donnell opens the Marabel Art Center on West 45th Street, named after O’Donnell’s teacher and mentor. “The kids will have somewhere to go,” the celeb says. “A lot of these kids don’t have parents at home.

“Art is essential for children. Especially children in trauma,” O’Donnell says. “Art is a way out. The thought that it’s being taken away from schools is devastating to me. I know it’s what saved me.”

– Anna Stewart

Dennis Quaid, Intl. Hospital for Children

Her name is Elka. And she was just 14 months old when Quaid first saw her on his third visit to Honduras for his charity, the Intl. Hospital for Children.

“She’d been living in a crib in this hospital that I could only describe as a bathroom in a dirty gas station,” Quaid says. Elka, who was born without an esophagus, had been abandoned by her mother at birth. “She got me,” he says. “We brought her back to New Orleans, and they made an esophagus out of part of her stomach.”

Elka is just one of many children the actor has rescued in his 20-year involvement with the New Orleans-based org. Quaid’s passion for the Intl. Hospital for Children began in 1987 when the star came down with the flu while shooting “The Big Easy.” Physician Mayer Heiman made a house call, and the grateful star asked the internist how he could make it up to him. Heiman told him about his nonprofit “hospital without walls.”

“A week later I was in Honduras,” Quaid says. “We picked up our couple of kids and brought them back to the States for surgeries. One kid had heart surgery, the other had surgery to repair a cleft palate.” Today, the IHC has on-site clinics in 16 countries, and more than 400 children have been flown to the United States for surgeries.

Quaid describes his role as “I’m the famous person who can get the word out and fund-raise,” which he does though HollywoodPoker.com and the Dennis Quaid Charity Weekend Golf Tournament.

Years ago, Elka was adopted by an American family and is now 15 years old. Although she and Quaid had written to each other, he hadn’t seen the girl since she was an infant in that Honduran hospital. Finally, last year, they met at Quaid’s golf gala.

“They made it a surprise for me,” he recalls. “They sort of ambushed me there onstage, and I just broke down like a baby. She was just like a little bubbly teenager.”

– Anna Stewart

Laura Dern, Healthy Child Healthy World

Ten years ago, Kelly Preston and John Travolta told Dern about the importance of pesticide-free foods for children. “That was my first education,” the actress says. “I’ve always been interested in creating chemically free safe homes. ”

Two years ago, Healthy Child Healthy World asked Dern to be their spokesperson. The mission: protecting the health of children from harmful environmental exposures. More than 125 million America children now face an unprecedented rise in chronic diseases and illnesses such as cancer, autism, asthma, birth defects, attention-deficit disorder and learning disabilities. HCHW helps to raise parental awareness to protect children from the environment’s harmful exposures.

According to Dern, the home is “the one area that we can control. And it is where small children spend the majority of their time.”

Managing the home environment is simple, this mother of two says. Just do as she does: Use chemically free cleaning products, buy organic products, get filtrated water systems, put down hardwood flooring.

“What I love about this organization is they have practical applications: ‘Hey, use this paint,’ or ‘You can clean your floors with vinegar and water just like our grandmothers,'” Dern says. “You don’t have to use high chemicals.”

– Anna Stewart

Hugh O’Brian, Youth Leadership

It was to be the nine days that would forever change Wyatt Earp’s life. And it started with a casual remark.

In 1958, O’Brian, the horse-opera actor, told the publisher of the Saturday Review of Literature that he would love to meet Albert Schweitzer. Two months later, the actor received a cable: “Doctor O’Brian and his party would be welcome at any time.” Signed: Albert Schweitzer.

O’Brian, at the height of his career, landed in a bush plane on a dirt airstrip in Lambarene, West Central Africa. No press scrum. No PR mavens. “I get out and there’s the doctor. He had on a pith helmet, a khaki shirt and khaki shorts,” O’Brian says. “I was wearing a suit.”

Schweitzer led the American “doctor” to a cutout canoe, and the pair headed nine miles upstream to the clinic.

“I did whatever I could during the day. I passed out food, built baby cribs, took stuff over to the leper colony,” he recalls. Each evening before dinner, Schweitzer played Bach on a piano that had half of its ivories missing. Then it was time to talk, and Schweitzer said something that became the backbone of the org that O’Brian would found: “The most important thing in education is to teach young people to think for themselves.”

When it came time for them to say goodbye, the Nobel laureate took the TV star down to the river. “The man had cat-gray eyes,” says O’Brian. “He just stood there looking at me, and said, ‘Hugh, what are you going to do with this?’ Of course I had no idea.”

Two weeks later, the actor founded nonprofit Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, which brings together a select group of high school students with leaders in business, education and government.

Today, HOBY seminars take place in all 50 states as well as Canada, China, Israel and Taiwan. More than 375,000 students have gone through the leadership program and all have graduated from high school.

“I never saw him again,” O’Brian says of Schweitzer. But the humanitarian knew what the star had done with those nine days. In 2003, Schweitzer’s daughter, Rhena Schweitzer Miller, wrote O’Brian: “My father … was very proud to know that he gave you the inspiration to start HOBY, and I am grateful that you are still keeping the dream alive 45 years later, passing on his gift to young people searching for a purpose in their lives.”

– Anna Stewart

Ashley Judd, Youth Aids

In 2001, Population Services Intl. reached out to Judd to be its global ambassador for its Youth AIDS program. That role recently took the actress to Mumbai to visit the red-light district of India’s largest city.

“I go wherever there is sex trafficking and exploitation. A typical day involves going to a brothel or slum — anyplace where sex work is overtly or covertly taking place,” she says. “We look at the programs that reach out to the person that’s being exploited as well as the person paying for prostituted sex.”

Teaching female sex workers how to correctly use the female condom is just one of those programs.

Five & Alive, a new PSI initiative, raises money and awareness for child-survival programs. “Eleven million children do not reach their fifth birthday
,” Judd says. “Our programs help ensure that poor children get a healthy start. They desperately need funding.”

Next up, Judd travels to Russia, where the focus will be HIV-AIDS prevention and human trafficking.

– Anna Stewart

Samuel L. Jackson, Artists for a New South Africa

On Halloween, when the other kids on the block were loading up on candy, the young Jackson was asking the neighbors for money for UNICEF. “I didn’t have a real clear idea of what UNICEF was,” he says. “I just knew the money was going to kids around the world.”

Today, Jackson and his wife, LaTanya Richardson, continue the good fight with Artists for a New South Africa, founded in 1989 to advance education, combat AIDS and strengthen democracy. The actor has paid many visits to those orphanages and schools that he has helped build and fund.

“You see these faces and they mean something to you,” he says. “They look like the faces that I grew up with,” he adds, recalling his childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn. The African children have no idea who superstar Jackson is. They just know he is the guy who donated money so they could have that school and get a well dug.

“We’re looking to make sure they have clothing, they have food, they have water, and that there is an educational system in place so that they can become employable,” says Jackson. “I don’t mind giving to green causes. I don’t mind saving a tree. But I’d rather save a person.”

– Anna Stewart

Jane Fonda, G-CAPP

Fonda and the charity she now chairs, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, puts the problem in terms that even a political conservative can understand: Each year, the federal government alone spends about $40 billion for services to families that began with a teenager giving birth.

“I wish that politicians were more able to think in terms of long-term (pregnancy) prevention,” says Fonda. “But they don’t because of the election cycles. They want to have something happen in office that they can take credit for.”

Back in 1994, recently married to Ted Turner, Fonda founded G-CAPP — and for good reason. “Georgia was No. 1 in teenage pregnancies,” she recalls. “We have dropped to 10. It is high but better. Unfortunately, Georgia is fifth in second pregnancies.”

Which is an even greater problem, in some respects, as Fonda points out: “It is hard enough when you’re a young girl with one baby. When you have two or more children, it becomes virtually impossible.”

Obviously, Fonda believes in more than just-say-no. Today, G-CAPP offers a number of programs that not only advocate birth control but educate sixth-grade boys as well as girls, give teen mothers support for long-term economic independence and match up pregnant teens with paraprofessionals known as doulas, who give emotional and physical support to the girls. “She’s not a midwife, but rather a coach,” Fonda explains. “Most of these girls have never had a real relationship with an adult.”

While that may sound like a long way from Fonda’s privileged upbringing in Hollywood, the actress does relate to the teenagers in G-CAPP’s programs.

“I didn’t have anyone to talk to about sex issues in my early adolescence,” Fonda recalls. “I’ve always been aware of how difficult adolescence is — what a defining time it is when we lock into our identities, which are formulated around issues of sexual identity.”

– Robert Hofler

Kristin Davis & Mama Grace’s Soup Kitchen

In Soweto, South Africa, there’s a place called Mama Grace’s Soup Kitchen, which serves meals to AIDS orphans.

“Mama Grace was responding to a need,” Davis says. “Initially she was only able to feed the children one meal a week. Then Oxfam found them and now she’s feeding 500 three hot meals a day.”

Oxfam Intl. (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief), a confederation of 13 organizations, works alongside 3,000 partners in more than 300 countries in the fight against poverty.

Davis’ involvement with the group began the evening George Clooney held a gathering to introduce Oxfam to his friends in the entertainment community. Davis listened to what they had to say and wanted to get involved. Clooney’s party led the actress to Mama Grace and the orphans in Soweto.

“One day Mama Grace got out her tattered notebook with a long list of those kids who needed shoes,” Davis recalls. “I said, ‘I can help with that.’ So I’m now supporting Mama Grace for a year with food and shoes.”

– Anna Stewart

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