Actress Maria Bello leads a group of 11 women to Port au Prince, Haiti for her We Advance foundation.
By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times
When most Westside moms take off four days to get away from it all, they might head to a Palm Springs spa, a Hawaiian resort or a Vegas show, but not when in the company of Maria Bello.
The “A History of Violence” actress recently returned from Port Au Prince, Haiti, where she led a delegation of 11 women on a tour of the impoverished country to witness the severe social and economic problems that were compounded by the devastating Oct. 2010 earthquake which killed more than 200,000 Haitians and displaced more than 1 million. Making matters worse is a nearly two-year-long cholera outbreak due to poor sanitation that has taken the lives of thousands more.
The May trip was one of several Bello has taken to the country since last year, when she co-founded a nonprofit called We Advance with fellow activists Aleda Frishman, Alison Thompson and Barbara Guillaume, a native Haitian. We Advance is a grassroots organization aimed at advancing the health, safety and well-being of women throughout Haiti. It works in some of the toughest areas of Haiti—Wharf Jeremy and Cit/ Soleil—where security issues often deter other nongovernmental organizations.
Joining Bello this time was a group of women that included Malibu moms Chris Griffiths and Penny Rhodes, and Pacific Palisades’ Sarah Robarts and Lauren Mosun. Accompanied by a security escort, the women were not spared the unsightliness of the tough conditions in Haiti.
“These brave women walked around some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the hemisphere,” Bello said.
One stop on the itinerary was the Nap Vanse Family Clinic in Port au Prince, which Bello’s foundation helps support. The facility provides maternal health, emergency, baby care, post-traumatic stress disorder, cholera prevention and hygiene services to about 150 people each day. Programs include Port au Prince’s first and only ambulance service (together with nonprofit Global Dirt) and the city’s first ever Empowerment Program, assigning 20 trainers to train 2,800 residents on subjects ranging from basic first aid to parenting skills.
In addition to the clinic, the women visited a factory and beaches where locals hope to revive tourism. Mosun still shakes her head over “the contrast from seeing the slums, where people lived in sewage, to the untouched beach just an hour away. One of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen.”
The May mission also met with Haitian women from the diaspora who had returned home post-earthquake to dedicate themselves to its rebuilding.
“These are educated, fierce Haitians who love their country,” Bello said.
In addition to partnering with dozens of other nonprofits to support education in the country, We Advance provides grants and funding to retain a lawyer for victims of rape. Amazingly, Bello explained, women in Haiti need a lawyer to file a police report, which costs $125 per claim.
“We helped create a national rape certificate for police stations to post on their walls,” Bello said.
The travelers listened as Haitian women shared their personal stories and hopes for Haiti’s future. Hearing about how these women, raped and kidnapped, became community organizers served as testament to the human spirit’s resilience.
“Most of them live in huts,” Bello said. “They didn’t ask for money. They just wanted us to hear their stories.”
“It was such a grounding, eye-opening experience,” said Mosun, mother of two, ages 3 and 4. “Traveling to Cit/ Soleil, seeing the triumphs, struggles and strength of the Haitian people, makes you really appreciate the blessings we take for granted.”
“On the Westside, we all start whining if we don’t get what we want now!” Robarts said. “It was amazing to see the peoples’ patience waiting in line all day to see a doctor. Such dignity, humility and grace.”
Griffiths, mom to Chester, 11, and Charley, 9, started the Malibu fundraiser Sack Lunch Series. In March, Bello met Griffiths at a Women’s Donors Network event, which led to Bello headlining April’s Sack Lunch in Latigo Canyon. While Sack Lunch’s official recipient was Venice Family Clinic, Bello broke from script to introduce the women to We Advance. From one event to another, Griffiths said she witnessed an “evolution of women empowering other women.”
Ultimately, the moms returned to L.A. transformed, grateful.
“Los Angeles felt like paradise coming back,” Robarts said.
Mosun, who showed her children photos, vowed to return: “They are connecting to it profoundly because their mommy was actually there…I feel it’s my obligation to help in any small way I can.”
Come June, she and filmmaker husband Alejo Mosun will host a private fundraiser for We Advance, which has upcoming July and September missions and a documentary in the works.
“This cause is all about women helping women worldwide,” Griffiths said. “Because we are all the same.”
For more information, visit WeAdvance.org.