It wasn’t a personal experience or family history that made Mariska Hargitay aware of victims of sexual assault. It was fan mail. The letters to the actress playing Detective Olivia Benson of “Law and Order: SVU” were not typical fan mail.
“They didn’t say, ‘I love your show. Can you send me an autographed picture?’ ” says Hargitay. “They said, ‘I was raped when I was 15. I’m 40 now, and I’ve never told anyone.’ Victims were disclosing their stories to me, many for the first time.”
Hargitay launched Joyful Heart in 2004 to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Since its inception, more than 1,500 survivors have participated in the foundation’s pioneering urban retreats and weeklong sessions in Kona, Hawaii, and Bimini, Bahamas. The wellness programs and workshops include art therapy, surfing lessons, yoga, meditation and swimming with dolphins.
“One of the things we do on the retreat is swim in the deep, deep ocean with the dolphins,” says Hargitay. “It’s a progressive therapy. The concept is to go into the unknown. It’s very freeing. The dolphins have no agenda.”
Hargitay recalls one woman who had been brutally raped. “When she came to one of retreats, she was very closed, armored, shut down and scared,” says the actress. “By the end of the retreat, we saw her armor and fear melt away. She looked physically different. Today, she is one of our biggest supporters.
“I still get so much email,” Hargitay continues. “I started the foundation to give women the courage to come forward. Because, often, the most traumatic part of violence and abuse is the response from one’s family or community, which is often disbelief, victim blaming, silencing, minimizing or even rejection.”