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A Star Fights Abuse in Hawaii

The Joyful Heart Foundation, created by Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is taking on child abuse in Hawaii with the One Strong Ohana campaign

Joyful Heart, a national foundation that actress Mariska Hargitay founded in Hawaii to take on child abuse, launches a new statewide campaign, One Strong Ohana, to involve more people in her good fight

When Mariska Hargitay took on the part of detective Olivia Benson on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (now in its 13th season) in 1999, nobody said it would be a double-role, the other being a real-life hero.

She has eight consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actress in a Drama with a win in 2006, received the 2005 Golden Globe Award and Golden Globe nomination in 2009, six SAG award nominations and two Gracie Allen Awards for American Women in Radio and Television; and most recently, she will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But what you won’t find on her resume is the long list of people she’s helped, particularly victims of abuse.

In 2004, she created The Joyful Heart Foundation with a mission to heal and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to cast the light of education into the darkness that surrounds these issues. With April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the timing of MidWeek‘s exclusive interview with Hargitay could not have been more fitting.

“We all know the safety and well-being of our children is a priority, but we also know that instances of child abuse and neglect occur at alarming rates, and I don’t think people understand the true epidemic of this issue,” says Hargitay. “In the United States, nearly four children die every day as a result of child abuse and neglect, and 40 percent of young victims won’t live to see their first birthday. Research also tells us that one in four women and one in six men have had an unwanted or abusive sexual experience in their childhood.

“And while most Hawaii residents agree that child abuse and neglect are serious issues, all too often public attention is only turned toward them when the media reports on a tragic child fatality at the hands of a parent or caretaker. In 2010 alone, there were 4,199 reports of child abuse and neglect throughout the state. These statistics are staggering, and we must do something to make a change.”

When she first joined Law & Order: SVU, Hargitay says sexual assault never played a significant role in her life, but then she did some research for the show and learned the statistics – one in three women will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime. Then came the fan mail.

“I had done other work on TV before SVU, and I’d gotten letters like, ‘Hi, my name is Amy. I’m 16 years old. I love your show, could you send me an autographed picture?’” explains Hargitay. “Now I was getting, ‘Hi, my name is Amy. I’m 16 years old. My father has been raping me since I was 12, and I have never told anyone.’ I remember my breath going out of me when the first letter came, and I’ve gotten thousands like it since then.”

Next was a heart-awakening experience during a visit to Hawaii. “I was swimming off the Kona Coast and this pod of dolphins came to where we were and I felt like I was surrounded by them and it felt like this sort of baptism because they did this crazy swarming sort of around me. I felt a connection to them and to myself that I had never felt before. They swam away and I came out of the water, and the first words out of my mouth were ‘I’m going to start a foundation for victims of sexual assault and child abuse and domestic violence.’

“When I’m in Hawaii I’ve always felt like I was home, which is bizarre because it’s not my home (she lives in New York) and I wasn’t born there (she was born in L.A.), but I have a connection that’s special to being there. It’s a place for me to retreat, meditate and to be truly still. I felt like I’m walking around with these gifts of hope, healing, possibility and joy, and those are the gifts that came to me in the water that day. So, I came out of the water with this profound clarity, this hope, this dream that all people can have, and that’s what I’m committed to do – to help other people reclaim their lives.”

The Joyful Heart Foundation has offices in New York and Los Angeles, and recently relocated its Hawaii office from Kona to Oahu (in the Kukui Children’s Center in Chinatown). It also recently partnered with the Hawaii Children’s Trust Fund in launching a statewide public awareness campaign called One Strong Ohana (see page 104 for more information) to promote the idea that the prevention of child abuse and neglect is a community responsibility and that there are simple ways to help create a safe and nurturing environment for Hawaii’s keiki.

“We all have a role to play, and research shows that parents and caregivers with strong social connections are less likely to abuse or neglect their children, and that’s why creating these strong connections is so important,” explains Hargitay. “As friends, supporters and bystanders, we can do simple things, such as, picking up groceries, offering to watch their children for a while, or even just talking to them to see how they’re doing can make a huge difference in preventing child abuse. We can ask our legislators to create laws that protect the well-being of children, provide funding for prevention and intervention work, and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.

“When I see a story (on child abuse) in the news, I think about kids who don’t have a voice, who think they’re alone and think it’s their fault, that they’ve contributed to it somehow and that they’re responsible. I think that’s what kills me and just breaks my heart, that these are little innocent victims. But I also think that child abuse is preventable.

“While I was pregnant with my son August in 2006, I was deeply touched by the tragic case of a 7-year-old girl named Nixzmary Brown who was beaten to death in her home in Brooklyn. Nixzmary weighed only 36 pounds, had missed weeks of school in the months leading up to her death, and often had cuts and bruises, and vague explanations – another fall, another accident. Home was a horror for Nixzmary, but somehow, so many caring adults in her community missed the signs of her abuse. In response, I became the face of a huge public awareness campaign, and our rallying cry was Turn Your Outrage and Grief Into Action. Following this experience, Joyful Heart changed its mission in 2008 to include child abuse and to reflect my passion and commitment to children.

“Most recently, the case that has touched me was that of Marley Makanani, who tragically died at the age of 3 as a victim of child abuse while in the care of her uncle. The news of Marley broke the day after our press conference launching the One Strong Ohana campaign in Hawaii, which was unbelievable. The only comfort I can find is knowing that all of our work with One Strong Ohana will let Hawaii residents know what they can do to get involved to prevent any other child from experiencing what Marley did.”

When Hargitay is not busy working 14-hour days on set, she’s occupied as a mom of three young children: 5-year-old August, and 1-year-old Amaya and 8-month-old Andrew (both of whom were adopted).

“Being a working mom, I wish I could say it’s easy, but it’s really hard,” she confesses. “The foundation has been particularly sensitive to my needs with time. I bring my kids to work and that’s probably one of the greatest things is I get to have them there with me. There are days when I feel like the luckiest person on the planet – I have this full life, this great job and I have my most beautiful kids and my babies. And then there are other days where I’m like aaaahhhhh, and that’s hard. But I feel like that’s sort of all working mothers. We want to be the best in all areas, but there’s just not that much time in the day. I’ve got a great support system. My husband (actor Peter Hermann) is amazing. We try to balance things out, and I just so cherish the weekends. I’ve learned a lot about time management.

“The truth is it takes a village, and I feel really lucky because I have an amazing support group of friends and family, and even my son is so sweet and he loves to help. I love that saying how it takes a village to raise a child – I think it really does.”

In addition to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which Hargitay says she has no plans of leaving, she’s also narrating a new documentary film on adoption, is producing a couple of works and next year hopes to direct.

The youngest daughter of screen legend Jayne Mansfield and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, she describes herself as a fun mother who is hands-on and loves to laugh.

“We have a house on Long Island and we call it the happy house,” says Hargitay. “But I’m also very strict, and we teach respect, manners, values, listening and giving somebody a firm handshake and looking at them right in the eye.

“I do discipline them, but I don’t spank. I haven’t found that was necessary. I think if you teach love and respect and teach your kids to listen and to be respectful, it shouldn’t really ever elevate to that level.

“One of the greatest things my dad taught me (about parenting) was he really listened to me. He listened and was so fair. I remember reasoning with him, and if I did something wrong, we would talk it out – he would say what he thinks and I would say how I think. I just knew he only wanted the best for me.”

Hargitay usually travels to Hawaii twice a year (in the summer and around Labor Day), but lately has only been able to come once a year with her next visit scheduled for September.

“Mariska is not just someone who happens to be a celebrity and loves coming to Hawaii on vacation,” explains Joyful Heart Foundation CEO Maile Zambuto, a graduate of La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls. “It’s really where her heart is, and all things that we do in the Foundation are inspired by her and her vision.

“We’re not a national foundation that decided to open an office in Hawaii. We’re a national foundation that was born in Hawaii. We’ve invested nearly $4 million since we started in the Islands, and we’ve reached more than 3,000 individuals directly through healing and wellness programs for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, and also to professionals – the folks who really are on the front lines.

“We’re also working on a new project with PACT on a program called Namelehuapono Wahine. It’s a domestic violence intervention program based on Hawaiian culture, developed by our board member Kalei Kanuha. We’re also in the process of seeking funding to create the program for children. In September, Mariska plans to host our first fundraising event in Hawaii. Also, last time she hosted a tea and invited community groups to hear about their challenges, and I’m sure we’ll do that again. She likes to stay connected to the community.”

The Joyful Heart Foundation has two full-time staffers in its Hawaii office, including regional director Kata Issari. The foundation also is supported locally by a Hawaii Advisory Committee and the Hawaii Hearts, a committee of volunteer supporters.

(Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, returning with a brand-new episode April 11 on NBC (KHNL). For more on One Strong Ohana, click here)

SOME OF MARISKA HARGITAY’S FAVORITE THINGS:

> Favorite vacation spot … Hawaii, especially the Na Pali Coast and Kona. I would also say Italy, especially the Amalfi Coast.

> Favorite family tradition … Thanksgiving.

> Favorite activity with my children … swimming and laughing.

> Favorite activities in Hawaii … hiking, relaxing, and being in the ocean. Being in Hawaii, it’s an opportunity to connect in with myself and go into a deeper part of myself – it’s where I feel truly at home. I especially love Hawaii Island and love the ocean, being in nature and I love to experience the volcano and I love to go to the top of Haleakala.

> Favorite places to eat in Hawaii … When I am in New York, I dream about the coffee in Hawaii – all of it. I love all the fresh fruit, especially the pineapple and the fresh fish. I love eating in at friends’ houses and enjoy cooking together (with one of my closest friends Caroleen Feeney, and when I am on Hawaii Island I hang and eat a lot with the Lallys and the Kobayashis). I also have the best food guide – Maile Zambuto, CEO of Joyful Heart Foundation who grew up in Honolulu – she hooks me up with all the secret spots. I love having brunch at The Kahala – their Li Hing Malasadas are insane! Also, shaved ice at Waiola, Chinese at Eastern Paradise, pho at Hale Vietnam, and I love, love town (in Kaimuki) – their chicken with bread salad is the best. Also, the best coffee in Honolulu is at Tango, and by far my favorite snack is Aunty Nalani’s cookies at Red Pineapple.

> Favorite movie… too difficult to answer. Right now, The Artist comes to mind. Secret Lives of Others. Whalerider. How is that for eclectic?

> Favorite TV show… Boston Legal and Extras.

> Favorite beauty product … Dr. Hauschka Rose Day Cream, Epicuren Kukui Nut Coconut Moisturizer, Bigelow Lip Gloss.

> Favorite fashion designer is… I have so many. But, right now I really love Stella McCartney, Lanvin and Chloe.

> Favorite thing to drink …. Green Drink (made from fresh organic vegetables: kale, spinach, celery, green apple, ginger and lemon in a juicer … or some version of that … sometimes beet, sometimes carrot).

> Favorite food … pasta.

> Favorite thing I own … my photos.

> Favorite childhood memory … dinner table when I was 5 or 6 – fun times.

> Favorite candy … Gummy Bears.

> Favorite hobby … being in the water.

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