Last year, when actress Patricia Arquette cofounded the nonprofit GiveLove with Rosetta Getty (wife of actor Balthazar), the two women had a plan: To help rebuild post-earthquake Haiti, they would try to improve sanitation systems and use abandoned shipping containers to create homeless shelters. But as the rainy season approached, they distributed tents and mosquito nets as well. “Need is everywhere,” says Arquette, noting that GiveLove also built an orphanage that shelters 170 children and 30 at-risk teenage girls. “People say, ‘Just choose one thing and do it.’ But why? If there are kids sleeping on the ground, you say, ‘Let’s get them in bunk beds.’ Different groups need different things.”
Arquette has now made 12 trips to Haiti. She can rattle off alarming statistics about earthquake-related problems—“Fifty percent of urban dwellers had no access to toilets”—then emphasize how GiveLove has helped: “To date, we have provided green sanitation systems for 2,000 people.” Since launching the NGO, the Emmy winner and mother of two—Enzo, 22, and Harlow, eight—has experienced some seismic shifts in her own life. Not only was her CBS series, Medium, canceled after seven seasons, but she filed for divorce from actor Thomas Jane (Hung). GiveLove, she says, “came at a moment where I was going through my own crisis, and I reached into myself: ‘Who am I really inside?’ What’s important to me is human connection and love and support.” For now, Arquette says, “I feel like Haiti has become my full-time job.” Below, our extended interview with Arquette:
More: What inspired you to start your own nonprofit?
Patricia Arquette: I gave money to big organizations right after the  earthquake. Then a friend of mine, a nurse, a first responder named Sat Hari came back [from Haiti]. She was so shaken up. She said, “You have to do something.” I’d been having these crazy ideas about shipping container homes. In Haiti, most of the buildings are [made out of] poured concrete that is so sandy you can almost see it disintegrating when rainfall comes. So much aid is shipped there and so many of these shipping containers are just rotting in the docks.
More: How many people are still homeless in Haiti?
PA: There’s 1.1 million people still living in tent camps. A year ago, there was 1.5 million people living in tent camps. So shelter was obviously important. Then I thought, “What would you do for a toilet if you didn’t have a toilet?” So I started looking into sanitation systems and septic systems and all kinds of different sanitation options. What I learned was that there was never really a municipal sanitation system in Haiti. Fifty percent of the urban dwellers have no access to toilets. This is a huge city. Imagine if 50% of Los Angeles’s population didn’t have a toilet. Eighty percent of the rural population didn’t have access to toilets. It was a community that was having [to resort to] open defecation.
More: People defecate on the street?
PA: Yes. Or in plastic bags that are then thrown on the ground. There’s no trash cans anywhere.
More: Is this anecdotal information? Or did you see it yourself?
PA: I saw it myself—and you’ll see it yourself if you go there. It’s just common practice. There’s no option. There’s nothing else. The lack of sanitation and the waterborne disease kills more children every year than AIDS and malaria combined.
More: How did you decide which sanitation system was best?
PA: Very early on, I brought over a lot of sanitation experts from all over the world and we set up a sanitation test and we had incredible results immediately with local materials. Our sanitation system is called thermophilic composting, also known as hot composting. It kills pathogens in minutes and the end product is compost.
More: How did the locals react to your composting toilets?