Compelled to action by issues as diverse as Third World crises and inner-city empowerment, celebs use their influence to make a positive impact.
EASTERN CONGO INITIATIVE
Tour of African conflict zones empowers healing efforts
Five years ago, Ben Affleck, in pursuit of research for his recently launched Eastern Congo Initiative, trekked to Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.
“I wanted to cover all the bases, figure it out,” he recalls. “I wanted to get a sense of the politics, the culture, the whole conflict matrix. There was still a lot of conflict going on. It was kind of a scary time. The worst holocaust in the last 100 years in Africa is the millions of people who have died in the Congo. I was stunned about how little was being done about this. So I decided to dedicate myself to that particular effort.”
Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative is the first U.S. advocacy and grant-making org focused on working with and for the people in the region. “We started fundraising about 15 months ago and we’ve raised millions. We fundraise in the U.S. and the money goes directly to the grass-roots organization. I’m really excited because it was important for me to demonstrate tangible results quickly.”
Thesp has also testified before Congress and has teamed up with Cindy McCain, whom he describes as a “huge asset who has been working in the Congo since 1996.”
The nonprofit addresses crucial issues such as child soldiers, economic development, health, rape and sexual violence.
Especially important to Affleck are women who have suffered abuse from soldiers.
“They decided to fight back,” he says. “They started up this radio station of women talking about women’s issues, like sexually based violence. They try to educate people so they start to see women as human beings. Then to take it another step, they hand out tape recorders to women in the bush. Then those women tape their stories. They then play the segments on the radio. It’s very empowering.”
Active org curbs dropout rate
Catching Title 1 high school kids before they drop out of school and hit life’s mean streets is the goal of Matthew McConaughey’s nonprofit j.k.livin.
“If you’re screwing up, skipping school and into gangs, high school is your last chance to get your shit straight,” says thesp. “As soon as you turn 18 you’re considered an adult, so (the idea is to) catch ‘em, and if they’re makin’ the right choices, keep ‘em on track, and if they’re not on track, give ‘em a chance. “
Founded in 2008, the org — which takes its name from McConaughey’s “Dazed and Confused” character — is an after-school program where kids of “every color, shape, size and sex” come to break a sweat and feel better about themselves.
“The j’s for just. The k’s for keep. No g on the end of livin because life is a verb,” the actor says. “That’s that bumper sticker.”
Partnered with Communities in Schools (the nation’s largest drop-out prevention body), j.k.livin’s fitness and wellness programs are now in 10 inner-city schools.
After kicking off at Hamilton High in Venice, Calif., with 80 underprivileged kids, the two-day-a-week program now has an annual running cost of $25,000 to $30,000 per school.
McConaughey’s test results are good. “The dropout ratio of the kids coming through the curriculum is very low,” he points out. “Teachers say that attendance and attention and is better. The kids’ behavior grades are much better and the (academic) grades are rising.”
TAIA PEACE FOUNDATION
Org seeks economic solution to Sierra Leone situation
Says Jeffrey Wright: “We have this idea that Africa is a basket case just littered with trouble. In fact, if we look at it through a brighter lens, then one becomes aware not only of the challenges, but also the potential of the place. In terms of natural resources, it’s the wealthiest continent on the planet.”
Wright’s Taia Peace Foundation addresses some of the significant challenges facing rural communities in Sierra Leone. It aims to help those areas to overcome the so-called “resource curse” by zeroing in on economic development. How it works: “The organization raises funds that allow the foundation to act as a proxy for the local communities to invest in the commercial entity like any other investor,” Wright says. “The idea is that natural resource potential can be redirected to play a role in curing some of the social ills that the continent faces.”
Such projects always include long-term job creation, education, health care and clean drinking water. But one isolated village wanted a road.
“We just completed the rehabilitation of an 18-mile feeder road that serves one of the remotest communities in Sierra Leone,” thesp concludes. “It’s projects like that that we’re particularly fond of. It’s a local community desire and everyone will benefit from that road.”
JASON DEBUS HEIGL FOUNDATION
Thesp makes critter care a priority
Romeo, Stella, Weezer, Oscar, Piper and Mojo get top billing in Katherine Heigl’s home.
These six canine characters, from young schnauzers to “an old man” collie make up the still-growing Heigl menagerie.
This animal-advocate actress passionately recalls shocking stories that her mother, Nancy, (who is looking after 14 rescue dogs) would tell her about abandoned and at-risk shelter animals. “Any time she would tell me one of those stories it would break my heart,” says Heigl.
Two years ago, thesp launched the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation in memory of her brother, killed in a 1985 car accident. Working alongside various rescue groups and vets, the nonprofit org fights against animal cruelty and pet overpopulation in the Los Angeles area.
The foundation has pledged $1 million to spay and neuter animals, and through its Compassion Revolution sponsors adoption days and other placement initiatives.
“People lined up around the block,” Heigl says of one event. “This one kid walked 6 miles with his dog to get him neutered. But we’ve already run through that million and another $500,000 on top of that. We don’t want to stop the spay/neuter days. They’re helping.”
Annually, between 6 million and 8 million dogs and cats are abandoned at shelters in the U.S. The ASPCA estimates that five out of 10 shelter dogs and seven out of 10 shelter cats are euthanized every year. In 2009, Los Angeles City shelters took in over 50,000 cats and dogs. Of that number, nearly 20,000 were euthanized.
“My mother has a much more hopeful spirit than I do,” Heigl says. “I tend to get more cynical when the stories get harder and harder. There was this beautiful little pit puppy that had been used as bait in dogfights. He had a broken neck and had to have a cast from about mid neck to mid back. Today, Bucket is six months old. He’s happy and joyful. He’s just this crazy, wacky guy.
J/P HAITIAN RELIEF ORGANIZATION
Arts workshops lift disaster victims’ spirits
Rainn Wilson hooked up with Sean Penn’s Haitian Relief org through the Girls United program.
“We taught the arts to adolescent girls at a tent camp for internally displaced person in Boulos, one of two tent cities that Sean’s origination administers,” says Wilson. “It’s a jaw-dropping experience to walk in there to teach the arts. I’ve taught the arts all over the place before I started working in film and TV. I did a lot of teaching in schools but I’ve never taught any place like this — a tent city with 50,000 people.”
Wilson gave classes in theater and drama to girls ages 13 to 23 for about two weeks. “It was in this big, muddy, hot stinky tent,” says the “Office” star. “I felt a little weird when we first showed up. Here are these people living in tents. Obviously they need houses, jobs and food. And here we are teaching the arts.”
But Wilson found the girls’ transition to be astonishing.
“It reaffirmed my belief in the power of the arts to affect and change the human heart,” he says. “Over the course of our time working with the girls they had a new found confidence and self-expression.”
Actor takes fracking to task
Around three years ago, Mark Ruffalo first heard about hydrofracking. He was curious about the process, so he started tooling around on the Internet to learn more about this high-volume fracturing, which injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock to retrieve trapped natural gas reserves.
“I read some really damning first-person accounts of what this was doing to people,” he recalls. “And it seemed to be in direct conflict to what the gas industry’s main selling points were.”
Ruffalo visited the town of Dimock, Pa., where he witnessed firsthand what he fervently believes to be the after-effects of fracking.
“Homes were filling with natural gas and exploding. Well heads were exploding,” he recalls. “People couldn’t drink the water. They couldn’t shower. The filtrations systems in their basements were completely useless. Cattle that had drunk the well water were dying.”
The people of Dimock reached out to the thesp. They needed an advocate.
Ruffalo’s WaterDefense.org calls on today’s generation to protect water against the effects of fossil fuels. His efforts have taken him before the New York State Legislature (New York is debating whether to permit fracking) and U.S. Congress. “There are some advocates and supporters of regulating this and some people believe that it can’t be regulated and can’t be done safely,” he says. “There are those senators and Congress people who believe those things.”
While the Oscar-nommed doc “Gasland” has helped to educate and rally the public, there haven’t been enough studies to quell Ruffalo’s concern.
“The studies show that there is methane gas well contamination near these drilling sites,” he says. “But the gas industry’s arrogance is grand and far-reaching. I’ve made some attempts to reach out to them. But when you don’t have any scientific basis for what you’re doing, they just turn to ridicule. We’re just very far away from where we need to be.”
COMMON GROUND FOUNDATION
Helping kids in the baddest part of town
In Chicago, on the hard South Side, the boy who would grow up to become known as Common first learned compassion from his mother.
“She really looked out for my friends who didn’t have parents,” Common says. “That influenced me. Once I got an opportunity to become an artist and fulfill some of my dreams, I said, ‘Man I want to give to those kids that didn’t have some of those opportunities.’ “
Located on the South Side, the Common Ground Foundation launched in 2000, offers annual after- school courses to 40 urban kids with its courses in holistic leadership, fitness, creative writing, social responsibility and survival in today’s society.
“Our mission is to encourage youth to have healthy programs and healthy minds,” Common says.
The hip-hop artist and actor once asked some kids what they wanted in life. “We want jobs,” was their response. “We just don’t want to hang out and get in trouble.”
“With the foundation, I feel we are able to directly find programs that would be helpful for them,” Common says. “In school, they get the support. After school, the foundation gives them added support.”
He recalls one of the foundation’s many success stories.
“One young lady’s grandmother told me that her granddaughter had been molested by her father and she didn’t feel good about herself. This grandmother’s like, ‘Man my granddaughter’s so excited to be a part of this program. She feels like she’s starting to see a new person.’ ”
Tony winner takes center stage in fight against AIDS
They strip. They dance. They find homes for puppies.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS raises loads of cash in the fight against AIDS in some pretty unique, fun ways.
From such special events as “Broadway Bares” to Broadway Barks to Gypsy of the Year (last year, Carol Channing made a star appearance) to the Easter Bonnet Competition, the nonprofit supports orgs that provide treatment for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1988, BC/EFA has raised $195 million to date and supports food banks, meal-delivery programs, emergency financial assistance and the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative.
“We try to get creative,” Tony winner Sutton Foster says of the org’s vividly themed fundraisers.
Twice a year, for six weeks of intensive fundraising, 52 Broadway and Off Broadway shows, offer up unique goodies and one-of-a-kind memorabilia in their Easter Bonnet and Gypsy sell-a-thons.
Daniel Radcliffe auctioned off the bow tie that he wears every night in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
“People bid thousands of dollars right there on the spot — just for his bow tie,” Foster says. “And for the musical ‘Urinetown,’ we sold rolls of autographed toilet paper that had ‘Urinetown’ written all over it. We had a lot of buyers.”
Foster has been a supporter of the nonprofit since 1995, hawking stuffed toy bears dressed as her “Drowsy Chaperone” character. The actress has also performed in “Broadway Bares,” but said, “I haven’t stripped, but I did wear a fabulous outfit.”
BRING CHANGE 2 MIND
Actress alters public’s perception of mental illness
One summer day, Glenn Close’s younger sister, Jessie, came up to thesp and their mother and said, “I’m really frightened. I can’t get t
houghts of killing myself out of my head. I need help.”
The “Damages” star recalls, “Jessie wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until she was 49 and had three kids, one of whom was diagnosed with schizophrenia, before she came to my mom and me that day.
“The family, we had no vocabulary for that. We didn’t have a clue. How could she not have been diagnosed? It was like she was the wild one, ‘OK. Jessie. What has she done now? Get a job.’ ” Close adds, “It’s not something that I’m proud of.”
Her nephew also suffers from mental illness, and he fits into the category of those people she is trying to reach with her nonprofit, Bring Change 2 Mind. The org, with its cutting-edge PSAs, is fighting the stigma associated with mental illness. That stigma can sometimes prevent the sufferer from seeking help.
One in six adults has diagnosable brain-related illnesses including depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia.
“Stigma is a big thing to tackle,” Close points out. “There’s a perception that people with mental illness are out of control, frightening and violent. People think you are your illness. But you’re not. My sister is not her illness. Neither is my nephew. They are people dealing with an illness. But it’s frightening. That’s where we need to change peoples’ minds.”
As an actor, Close understands the power of words.
“On the simplest level, to be able to say words like schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline personality, post-traumatic stress disorder out loud is a big first step,” she says.
RYAN SEACREST FOUNDATION, THE VOICE
Host lets ill kids run their own radio station
Children stuck in a hospital are bored. They would love to have something fun to do.
Ryan Seacrest had the answer: Build a state-of-the-art broadcast media center in the lobby of a hospital, and let the little patients play interviewer, use the equipment and then broadcast those interviews to all the rooms in the hospital, so even those kids who can’t come down can be part of the action.
“They’re got their own radio station as a toy in the hospital,” says the TV and radio show host and producer. “And everybody, no matter what they’re going through, can participate.”
Celebs like the Backstreet Boys, Jordin Sparks, the New Kids on the Block, Big Time Rush, Selena Gomez and Joe Jonas come to be interviewed by the young radio hosts whose questions run from, “How did you get to be so good at what you do?” to “What do you like to eat that your mom doesn’t let you.”
The Voice is now in Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and there are plans to build broadcast media centers “in as many children’s hospitals as we can across the country,” Seacrest says.
“The kids’ response is fantastic. The doctors actually noticed they get less calls for medicine when we’ve got something going on because the kids are in such good spirits,” he adds. “Just because these kids are in the hospital and they’re sick doesn’t mean that they’re not creative, doesn’t mean that they’re not ambitious, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be a part of something.”
David Hyde Pierce
Cause & effect | HFPA’s showbiz gifts | Empathy artists