No matter what role she’s in, the award-winning Australian actress Toni Collette brings a burning intensity. At 11, she faked appendicitis so realistically that her healthy appendix was actually removed. In Showtime’s United States of Tara, she played a woman with multiple personalities, believably pulling off eight characters.
Most recently, Collette shed an unsettling 15 pounds to portray a cancer-stricken mother in the comedy (yes, a comedy) Miss You Already. So it only makes sense that when she became the first global ambassador for Concern Worldwide, a nongovernmental organization founded to fight extreme poverty, she took to the project fully. What attracted her, she says, is that the NGO approaches its projects with intelligence and commitment. “Concern has no blanket rule for helping other than listening to people in need and treating them with respect,” she says.
For her first trip as ambassador last summer, Collette traveled to Haiti to see Concern’s efforts firsthand. The images are still fresh in her mind.
Port-au-Prince is only four hours from New York, yet it must have felt like a world away.
It did. Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, which came on the heels of a devastating 2008, when four hurricanes ravaged the nation. But even then, Haiti is just a toe in the water in terms of the areas Concern takes on. That’s the most frightening part, because what I witnessed there was just so sad.
What resonated with you about your visit to the tent city Cite Cabrit?
Five years after the earthquake, the people there, nearly 150 families, are still living under tarps and sheets of tin. They still have no food, no water, no money, and no access to health care. It’s tempting to regard the poverty and misery as too deep to fix. But Concern chips away at the challenges and, most important, sticks around. It doesn’t drop care packages and run. Rather, it educates people, encourages their autonomy, and won’t leave until real changes have been implemented.
What does that change look like?
One of Concern’s goals is to foster financial independence and break the cycle of poverty. In Haiti, for instance, we’ve helped 5,600 families move into permanent housing by covering a year’s worth of their rent up front. By giving these people another crack at life, we’ve also instilled a sense of purpose, which is beautiful to watch.