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Giving Back to the Future

In honor of our annual Philanthropy Issue, we asked five A-list do-gooders to explain how they, along with their big-hearted organizations, are helping to change lives—one future veteran, aspiring actress and budding artist at a time.

“I wanted to make sure I gave back to young women who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to attend summer camp,” says stage and screen star Idina Menzel, whose 10-day, girls-only performing arts camp is based in the Berkshires. Menzel released her first Christmas album, Holiday Wishes, last month.

Photo by Miller Mobley/Redux

Idina Menzel: Raising Voices, Off Broadway
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend sleep-away summer camp for many years. It was a beautiful way for me, as a young girl, to explore my identity. As I got older, and the projects that I was associated with started to resonate with young people, I wanted to create a camp to encourage young women to find their voices. With the help of a few close friends, A BroaderWay was born.

I envisioned it as a place where girls could come to escape the chaos of the city. It’s about giving them a source of expression, and a place to go and take risks. Our performing arts camp is based in the Berkshires, where we do a lot of writing and journaling during the 10-day experience. We integrate that into a completely original recital based on the girls’ own stories, poetry and choreography. Being the author of your own life is such a profound lesson to learn. You can dictate what you do by what you say and write, and put it out into the universe.

A BroaderWay accomplished a four-year program, starting from age 10 or 11, and our first group just graduated this past summer. It was very moving for everyone. The girls really trusted us, and we were learning from them too. That’s why I like the name A BroaderWay so much. It’s not just about us giving to these girls; it’s also about them teaching us. It’s really broadened all of our worlds, and all of our hearts. 

Adam Driver: Arming With Care
In my second year at Juilliard, which was two years after I left the Marine Corps, I founded Arts in the Armed Forces, remembering those “mandatory fun” events that we were “volun-told” to go to in the Corps, like “Win a Date With a San Diego Cheerleader,” where, if we answered enough questions correctly about pop culture, we won a chaperoned walk around the Parade Deck with some terrified, already-married cheerleader. Though clearly well intended, these events were met by my platoon with the feeling that, as infantry Marines, we could handle something a bit more thought-provoking.

In my post-Marine Corps life, I was exposed to playwrights and plays that had nothing to do with the military, but articulated my experiences in the armed forces in a way that had before been indescribable. While reflecting on my service, it wasn’t the drills, discipline and pain that first came to mind, but the humanity in it all—friends missing their families, couples battling divorce and the anxiety they embodied in not being able to express their feelings about it. Through theater, I noticed a calming change in myself as I was armed with the power of putting words to feelings for the first time. I regretted not having that means of self-expression while I was enlisted, so that I could share it with the people I served with.

AITAF does that. We bring quality entertainment to veterans and those currently serving. We cultivate tonally eclectic, often hilarious content that focuses on the human challenges we all share. We recruit great actors to read it, and make it cost-free. Though AITAF offers an artistic experience that can’t immediately be quantified, the feeling after an AITAF performance is tangible, as we watch someone from the military “get” that the act of self-expression is as powerful a tool as the rifle on their shoulder.

Petra Nemcova: Heart of Gold
In 2004, the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami took the life of my boyfriend, photographer Simon Atlee, and left me shattered both emotionally and physically—my pelvis was in pieces. While I was healing, I knew I wanted to make the biggest impact possible in a way that was also sustainable. I went back to Thailand four months later with my sister Olga to see the place—for closure and to see how we could help. I found that little progress had been made, so in 2005 I founded the Happy Hearts Fund, a nonprofit organization that rebuilds schools in areas impacted by natural disasters. We come in when it’s not sexy—after the first responders have left and it’s no longer a fixture on the news or social media.

Children can start healing when they have a quality education. The longer they have to wait for a school, the deeper the trauma becomes. Our schools are safe, resilient and sustainable, and can also serve as a shelter. Many HHF-constructed schools also have computer labs and technological elements that were nonexistent prior to the devastation. We’ve built more than 92 schools in nine countries, including the United States, and we have plans to construct eight more by year’s end. December is the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, and we will commemorate that by building our 100th school.

We haven’t done it all on our own. The first people who helped the HHF were from the fashion industry: makeup artists, photographers and hairstylists who donated their time and their talent. People think the fashion industry is shallow, but they were the first to embrace my cause. All in, we’ve raised over $16 million for our efforts. And we rely on the support of so many people in so many ways: the community, the teachers, the parents and everyone who supports us—each of them is an important piece of the puzzle. 

Russell Simmons: Rush’s Hour
My parents were artists; my mother painted and my father was a poet. With a family full of artists, I understood early on the impact the arts could have on families, our youth and society as a whole. Art opens up minds, transcends barriers and makes change. Today, “art saves lives” is the motto the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation lives by.

I created the foundation in 1995 with my brothers, Danny and Joey “Rev Run,” as we saw the glaring need for the arts in the lives of our youth. I tell this story often: My brothers and I would be at galleries and parties in Chelsea and right across the street there were project buildings—and still are. Kids and families had no idea what was going on right across the street, had no idea about the art and culture right around them. We felt we needed to help our youth keep developing their creativity, and help our artists with their own opportunities as well. The goal was to give our youth a platform and medium via the arts and arts education, which would help open their minds and help them understand that their lives and their worlds could expand and exist beyond those project buildings.

Next year, we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary with the thousands of youth and artists who have come through Rush. And we’re about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of our Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, at Scope Art Fair during Art Basel in Miami next month. A huge part of our mission at Rush is to provide a platform for emerging artists to launch their careers, and through the Artisan Series, we’ve been able to do just that. 

Susan Sarandon: Hope Builder
I was introduced to Okello Sam, founder of Hope North, an accredited school in civil war-torn northern Uganda, in 1998. I was impressed with his charisma and inspiring personal story, but as I learned about what he had actually accomplished in Uganda for thousands of youth, I was determined to help. It’s not easy to find trusted and effective changemakers, so when I meet someone with that talent, I feel a responsibility to help them get a bigger platform.

There’s something for all of us to learn in Okello’s example. He was kidnapped, tortured and forced to be a soldier when he was still a child, and suffered unfairly. But when he escaped, he planned a funny sort of revenge: to relentlessly pursue a vision of peaceful development for his country.

Okello recognized that the only road to lasting peace and development in Uganda was to educate youth, and that’s what he’s done for thousands of kids for the past 16 years.

Why am I involved in Hope North? Three reasons: 1) It costs $1,500 to send a child to Hope North for an entire year, including books, tuition, arts, athletics, food and housing. No matter what you give, it goes a long way. 2) I can vouch for Hope North. It’s a local, grass roots organization. When you want to help where there is need, support a local partner rooted in their community. 3) Because instead of fighting violence, Hope North is helping to end violence by providing at-risk youth a refuge and road to the future.