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Maria Bello is knee-deep in bubbles, leaning over to wash the face of a small child who is grinning, eyes closed tight, as soapy water streams down his face. Laughter and splashing sounds fill the air as two other kids get scrubbed in this inflatable pool and dozens of others await their turns. It’s bath day in the poorest slum in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
With her long blond hair tucked under a cap, it’s hard to pick out the actress among the other women volunteers wearing sweat-drenched, turquoise T-shirts identifying them as members of We Advance, an organization Bello co-founded in the aftermath of Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake.
Fast-forward to a January afternoon in Venice, Calif. Bello hops out of the passenger side of a car in front of a busy restaurant, strides purposefully across the sidewalk and opens the door to the din of hearty lunchtime chatter.
Dressed in blue jeans and a stylishly ragged shirt with holes at the elbows, the 45-year-old Bello shoulders a leather bag containing a statistic-bearing report she’ll pull out a little later. She seems relaxed and confident. But there’s also an intensity about her—in the way she gesticulates or uses her eyes to connect with me.
Seated in the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard, Bello runs her eyes over the menu and points out the good stuff: the roasted cauliflower, the chickpea stew. Then she admits to a hankering for pizza, and there’s no argument from this side of the table.
During lunch, she openly greets acquaintances who drop by to briefly catch up, people who live down the street or run businesses in this small thriving corner of greater Los Angeles, a little slice of community within the big metropolis.
Bello seems comfortable immersing herself in the stream of life, wherever that may be—in conversation here at our table, on the set of her recently canceled but much lauded TV show Prime Suspect or working in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil slum.
In fact, she’s here today to talk about her abiding desire to help the women of Haiti create a safe, sustainable place to live. Her feelings for this impoverished country and its people developed a few years ago, before the earthquake, when she stepped off a plane in Port-au-Prince and realized immediately that the country would become her second home. “I just fell in love with it,” she says.
And it’s the blatant paradoxes she notices there, that stream of life that is often so clear in places where living isn’t easy. Life and death. Joy and despair. “One can’t separate them,” she says. It’s the realness she appreciates—a trait other people say resonates in her.
Bello’s friend and women’s rights advocate Aleda Frishman says she met the actress in early 2010 in Haiti. They were both working at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp after the earthquake, and when they started talking, the topic quickly turned to women’s rights issues. “I didn’t know who she was. She had a bandana around her neck and sweat was dripping down,” says Frishman. Later that evening, when Bello explained her background, Frishman recognized her. “I got it then, but that’s just who she is, a real down-to-earth person.”
That authenticity has served Bello well in her acting career. Nominated for Golden Globes for her work in The Cooler and A History of Violence, with roles in other films that include Thank You for Smoking and The Jane Austen Book Club, Bello has been praised for her ability to transform herself into women as varied as a loving suburban mom in World Trade Center to a sexy singing punkster in Duets. A profile from The Washington Post in 2006 still rings true today: “Critics respect her. Movie connoisseurs, the type happy to deem themselves tastemakers, profess to adore her. She has played a hooker, a barkeep and a karaoke con artist and seems to be edging her way to the precipice of some greatness.”
But even before she was on the precipice and long before she took to the proverbial stage, Bello was interested in human rights. The second oldest of four children, she went to Catholic schools and then college at Villanova. She had plans to study international women’s law, but took an acting class late in college and was hooked.
She turned to her mentor, social activist, professor and Augustinian priest, Father Ray Jackson, to tell him about her new interest and to get some perspective after spending so much time focusing on peace and justice issues. “When I decided to be an actor, he told me, ‘You serve best by doing the things you love most,’ ” she says. It was good and memorable advice.
And she proved him right, even in her mid-20s, after she moved to New York to pursue that thing she loved most. She and two friends, an actor and a writer, co-founded a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, in New York City called the DreamYard Drama Project, which connects artists with students. Her co-founders still run the project, which has grown immensely and serves thousands of students in the Bronx each year by giving them access to arts education.
Later, when she moved out to Los Angeles, where some of her early roles were in the television shows Mr. and Mrs. Smith and ER, she worked with Save the Children and Save Darfur. She helped U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer lobby for a special hearing on rape as a weapon of war in 2009. In Haiti, rape did not even become a felony until 2005.
Before the earthquake in Haiti, Bello was active with different organizations including Artists for Peace and Justice, and Femmes en Democratie. After the quake, Bello frequently traveled to Haiti to help out in one of the camps for displaced people. Even after this horrific disaster, with its still-disputed death toll ranging from around 50,000 to more than 300,000, she was awestruck by how incredibly resilient the Haitian people were. “At the IDP camp where we worked, six nail salons had been set up,” she says. “The people were just so innovative. Children still dressed in their finest trying to go to school.”
Still, what made her furious, what makes her furious even today, is how little consideration women were and are given. While larger, well-funded NGOs were stymied by their own bureaucracy after the earthquake, Bello noticed how much the women were getting done, feeding hundreds of children without any money and solely with the help of other community members.
“The thing that frustrates me the most and the thing that drives me is that their voices aren’t included in the conversation,” says Bello, whose agitation seems to be mounting as she speaks, along with her use of expletives. Fed up with the inefficacy of the big NGOs, she and some of her activist friends in Haiti decided “to go guerilla” and work with local women to get their needs funded, including a women’s clinic they launched with $5,000 and a lot of volunteers.
Their networking of friends, volunteers and other organizations worked so well that a few months later, Bello and three other women co-founded their own small nonprofit called We Advance (WeAdvance.org). They focused on an area of the poorest slum in the Western Hemisphere, Cité Soleil, and opened on a shoestring budget.
“These are the people suffering the most in Haiti. They live in tin shacks with dirt floors, no plumbing, no sanitation, no electricity,” Bello says.
The organization ultimately aims to provide a platform for women’s voices and will be run solely by Haitians. “But we realized it had to be a service-based organization first,” says Frishman, one of the co-founders of We Advance.
Before the nonprofit got funded, Frishman says she and others walked Wharf Jeremy, one of the most dangerous areas of Cité Soleil, asking women what they needed. “We tailored the way our organization was going to open by what people asked for,” she says. The needs included prenatal and health services, English classes, security for their children through structured activities like art classes, and even a weekly bath day for the kids—all things We Advance now provides. A video on the We Advance website shows Bello and other volunteers, as well as paid Haitian employees, leading the children in games, administering vaccines and teaching classes.
Frishman, who lives in Haiti, describes Bello’s work as always hands-on and extremely involved. “Even when she was filming Prime Suspect, I probably spoke to her three to four times a day.”
These days, Bello is in Haiti sometimes several times a month, and also in Washington, D.C., and other places speaking on behalf of Haitian women. “I always say that I am in service,” she says. “Use me, I say to the women.”
Reaching into her leather bag at lunch, she pulls out an annual report detailing the work of We Advance. She points to pictures of the neighborhood and a medical clinic, which locals call the little yellow sunshine clinic. It opened with help from the Clinton Foundation and sees up to 150 women and children a day.
Bello has given a lot of thought to the idea of service, which was important to her even as a kid. “But I don’t think you have to be a saint to be of service. We all do it for many different reasons, maybe part of it when I was younger was the romance of it, the adventure, or the Catholic idea of doing good.”
She says it helps to have pretty thick skin. “I can kind of see anything. I’ve experienced people dying, and dead people and horrible things. And not that it doesn’t affect me, but I tend to be able to walk away and be OK with it and go back to my life and really be grateful for my life and the way I live.”
And no one is free from the struggles of life, she says. Her own plate is certainly full. She’s the mother of an 11-year-old boy and says she has the same neuroses most concerned parents do, that kind of running dialogue that says “What if I screw up my kid? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I’m late to pick him up?” But she also tries to just let it be and include him in the work that she does (he even Skypes with kids in Haiti).
“I try more and more to give myself a break. This is my work, this is my destiny, this is who I am. This is my job in this lifetime,” she says. And, she says, her son also has a terrific father, screenwriter Dan McDermott, who remains a close friend.
She says her days are filled with being a mother, doing We Advance work (“I’m on the phone to Haiti three hours a day”) and pitching projects that she wants to produce. She’s also filming Grown Ups 2 and has become more interested in the business side of things in Haiti.
“It’s only with businesses being socially responsible and investing in developing nations that we can lift people out of poverty,” says Bello, speaking of women in particular. “It’s been proven time and again that the more women are economically and politically empowered, the more stable the country is.”
Her successes in life, both in establishing her own nonprofit and in becoming a highly respected actress, have certainly come with their share of difficulties or, “a lot of falling down,” as she puts it. “But I tend to be bullheaded and single-minded.” And intent on learning from her mistakes by reaching out to experts, to people who are smarter or more experienced.
For instance, these days, she’s particularly interested in learning more about being an entrepreneur in Haiti. And then she can’t help but add with a smile, “If anyone reading SUCCESS could teach me something, I’d be happy to learn.”