Toni Collette’s Role With Concern Worldwide US

December 19, 2014
Originally published in: Gotham Magazine
Written by Suzanne Charlé
Photo by Crystal Wells

From the Winter 2014 issue of Gotham Magazine: Actress Toni Collette discusses a new and important role—global ambassador for Concern Worldwide US—to coincide with the group’s two December fundraisers.

In 2012, Concern Worldwide asked me to do a PSA. The group focuses on reducing poverty in the world’s poorest countries as well as those impacted by natural disasters and war. (As I write this, the group is in Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan.) I’d recently had my second child, and the message about nutrition for children really got to me. Having kids puts things in perspective. You start to prioritize and realize that we are all connected. The more research I did on Concern—the lives it has made better and the people it has empowered—the more I wanted to know. I was intrigued, and I agreed.

Just before the holidays that year I did another PSA for Concern, urging people to honor friends and family by buying “gifts”—a chicken, a goat, a water pump—for people who don’t have basic essentials. Last January, the organization offered me the role of Global Ambassador. I balked at first, since it’s a huge responsibility and I was busy preparing for the Broadway production of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses. But from my research and experience, I knew how effective Concern was at implementing real and lasting change. It has what one of the founders of Concern calls “a fire in [its] belly” to make a difference—I said yes. I wanted to bring as much attention to the organization and its work as possible.

As Global Ambassador, it’s important to experience the work Concern does firsthand. Haiti seemed like a logical first trip, since I was living in New York at the time. Geographically, Haiti made sense. Concern has been in Haiti for 20 years, so when the earthquake hit in 2010, it was there, familiar with the community and able to jump straight in. It’s the real deal. (Others have recognized this as well: To raise money for Concern’s work in Haiti after the earthquake, Shane MacGowan, Johnny Depp, Nick Cave, and friends released a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.”)

Last July, just before filming started on Miss You Already, I flew to Haiti with Joe Cahalan, CEO of Concern US, and two other amazing people who work with the group. Joe took me to a camp in Portau-Prince for about 200 families who had lost everything in the earthquake. Four years later, they still have nothing. I mean nothing. No food. No water. No home. No sense of safety. No education for their kids. No income. No health care. No way out.

Concern has paid for entire camps of displaced people to relocate to proper homes—something the size of a studio apartment, or even smaller. Concern trains people in simple jobs, so they can become self-sufficient and feel empowered again. Concern moved one woman, Judith, and her family, who lost everything, to a much cleaner area and helped her rebuild her business selling soap and daily necessities at her tiny stall. Concern checks in on a weekly basis until the people are on their feet and have established new lives.

What so impresses me is that Concern tailors help for each family. One young woman I met was pregnant when the earthquake struck. She was trapped under rocks. Finally she escaped, only to realize that her home had been devastated. Back in her village, Concern bought her a goat and taught her how to take care of it and create a business. Using the profits from this one goat, she [created] a livestock business, which allowed her to set up a home for her two kids. She was so proud to show me her bankbook.

Concern is very strategic, and at the same time it works in a very personal way: It focuses on individuals, giving them the tools to create new and stable lives. It educates people about the simplest of things, like washing their hands to avoid diseases. (In Haiti, there was a horrible outbreak of cholera after the earthquake.) In Saut-d’Eau, farmers told me how Concern trained them in better agricultural practices and taught them about market prices. That, plus a new road, meant they could bring their mangoes and avocados to market and make money for their families. The village also has a waterfall with religious significance. With the road, pilgrims and tourists could visit the village—which now has a bed-and-breakfast Concern helped the locals to set up.

From here on, it’s one foot in front of the other, with my heart open. My next visit will probably be to Africa; so many countries have populations suffering high levels of malnutrition. I hope to visit as many countries as possible where Concern implements change. In all, there are 25, mostly in Africa and Asia.

[From] this knowledge, I hope to shine a light on Concern’s invaluable work and help raise much-needed funds to carry out that work. Unlike so many aid groups, it doesn’t have blanket solutions. It is in these places for the long term. Once the emergency has passed and the crowds of nonprofits have migrated to the next hot spot, Concern will still be there, making sure people are back on their feet, steady and strong, before they move on to help others.

Concern Worldwide US will be hosting two fundraisers in New York: Seeds of Hope, December 2, honoring Time Inc. CEO Joseph A. Ripp (Waldorf Astoria, 301 Park Ave.), and the Winter Ball, December 12 (583 Park Ave.).