Patricia Arquette: Hands on in Haiti

The Emmy-winning actress discusses her humanitarian work in Haiti. Plus: In our Web-exclusive interview, Arquette opens up about life after 'Medium' and why she has Sean Penn on speed dial

By Margy Rochlin
patricia arquette in haiti photo
Photograph: Mitchell Haaseth

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 [2010] 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?

PA: Everyone was asking for this sanitation treatment. To date, we have provided ongoing green sanitation for over 2,000 people a day and we have this long list of people who want us to bring this knowledge to them. We’ve trained many, many people. We’ve done community training on hygiene and sanitation and the correlation with public health.

More: What happened to your shipping container-as-houses idea?

PA: Several times, we were given land that turned out to be in dispute. In Haiti, land ownership is one of the main issues. The main building that held all the titles was destroyed in the earthquake. You can meet someone who says they own the land and they can have a title to the land and it will be signed by a judge. Then all of the sudden, five more people show up with the title for the same land. You run into this real issue where you don’t want to choose a side or even imagine who is on the right side. We’re not there to force our will on the people of Haiti.

More: GiveLove built an orphanage. How did you make that happen?  

PA: We ended up finally finding these great partners: St. Luke’s Hospital and Father Rick Frechette. He’s been working in Haiti for 25 years. They have this complex in Port-au-Prince and they had a little temporary orphanage that [shelters] 170 kids. So we donated a lot of our shipping containers to them. They actually finished the build-out themselves. We wanted to help them, but they have their own crew and wanted to do it themselves. In the same complex, we also built out another orphanage which is for 30 at-risk teenage girls.

More: How big is the GiveLove team?

PA: We have a baby-sized team. It's my friend Rosetta Getty, our program director Alisa Keesey, a fundraising woman named Taylor Choi and we have an accountant.  We have three Haitian employees, a sanitation volunteer from Portugal and then we rotate in kids from all over the world who are getting their master’s degree in sanitation. We’ve had people come from Norway, Costa Rica, Canada, Portugal, America. We have building volunteers that come out and donate their time. We have a little house we rented where all the volunteers stay and we keep rotating people in and out. I try to use my miles whenever possible to get [plane] tickets. We’re very bare bones.

More: My guess is that you’ve never run a nonprofit before. How did you know you’d be good at this?

PA: I have experience being a mom, organizing my own life and my children’s lives. I have limited experience overseeing construction, [but] I’ve always been involved in philanthropy. [Sometimes] it just feels too nebulous to me, donating money to who-knows-where. I come up with my own concepts like, “Hey, let’s adopt a women’s and children’s shelter for abused women for Christmas. We’ll get their Christmas wish lists and we’ll get a Santa and a turkey dinner and be there with the kids and let their moms pass out their presents.” I’ve always been good at finding good people, which I think is a particular skill. I think that maybe that’s my greatest skill.

More: So many celebrities have gone to Haiti. How did you figure out your niche?

PA: When you go to Haiti, you have plenty of options. All of the sudden people will say to you, “Hey, there’s this organization and these kids are in shredded tents and they’re still sleeping on the ground and they’re covered with scabies and have no sanitation, no kitchen, no clean water source and nowhere to sleep.” So you say, “Well, if we have these shipping containers, let’s raise the money and get these kids in bunk beds.” Why do we have to choose one thing? My criteria is that each program be beautiful. And I don’t mean aesthetically beautiful, I mean emotionally beautiful.

More: Define “emotionally beautiful.”

PA: We work with this Buddhist school in the middle of one of the tent camps. They have these little temporary school classrooms and kids are learning and they have a garden there. They're growing kale and tomatoes and they have our [composting] toilet and the kids have hand washing stations. Then you walk 10 feet to the pit latrine next door and you see human excrement leaking into people’s tents and covering staircases and piled around. It’s like there’s no dignity or hope in poverty. And I don’t believe that that has to be the case. I think if you partner and you align and you empower people, together you can do incredible things.

More: Has your work in Haiti affected your life in Los Angeles?

PA: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of pros and cons. [My nonprofit work] came at a moment in my life where I was going through my own crisis and I reached into myself, like, “Who am I really inside?” What’s important to me as a human being is human connection and love and support.  But it’s also been very taxing because I devote hours and hours to it and there’s been times when it has brought conflict into my personal life. It’s a lot for my eight-year-old daughter to share her Mom so much—whether it be on the phone or [the fact that] I’m constantly going back and forth to Haiti.

More: Have you taken your daughter, Harlow, with you to Haiti?

PA: I haven’t because she needs a couple more shots. She says, “I want to come,” and I’m like, “Okay, let’s get your shots." [Then she says] “NO, I don’t want to go if I have to get shots!” But the other day she was looking at pictures because she’s very into me updating her on what we’re doing and supporting the kids and she said, “How long will it hurt if I get the shots?” So I think she’s getting ready to come with me. I think it will be incredible for her to see the little girls she’s helping that are her own age.

More: Since the earthquake, Sean Penn has emerged as a fix-it man in Port-au-Prince. Have you used him as a resource?

PA: Hell, yeah. I bugged Sean a lot of times. And he’s helped me a lot. I bug him all the time. [laughs] I’ll bug anybody, everybody. I’m shameless.

More: How hands-on are you?

PA: In Haiti, it’s like working through tar. I’ll be at the job site and they’ll say “We need 500 of these kinds of screws for the sheet metal and 500 wood screws.” So I’ll spend an hour and a half driving to a hardware store and they’ll have [only] one of them. And then I’ll drive another hour to another hardware store. When I was little, I lived in a hippie commune for a few years. We were incredibly poor. We didn’t have running water or bathrooms. I understand what it is to be really poor and still have the light and spirit and joy of childhood. I believe in the possibility of every one of those kids, their potential and their value. For me, it’s not a big deal to sleep in a tent. Last time I was there, we had so many volunteers that I slept on the couch. It’s not like I fly in with my hair stylist and makeup artist or say, “Send me first class!”

More: Your family members are all activists, right?

PA: Oh, yes. I was in my mom’s stomach when she was marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. His bus pulled over and they said, “You’re too pregnant. It’s too hot. Come on the bus.”  My mother used to say to me, “Patricia. You rode in the bus with Martin Luther King when you were in my stomach.” [My family] went and camped out at El Diablo Canyon when they were going to build a nuclear power plant on the largest fault line in California.

More: You look lighter, happier, since your CBS series Medium ended. How much does that have to do with how draining it is to star on a hour-long TV series?

PA: As much as I loved Medium, the subject matter was dark and your brain doesn’t really know the difference. Between “action” and “cut,” you’re thinking, “Where did you kill the girl?” “Where did you bury her?” “Did you skin her alive?” “Did you shoot her in the head?” Those are thoughts are actually [going through your mind] while you’re filming. And it’s heavy to be thinking about that part of mankind so much, what human beings are capable of doing to one another. The subject matter was dark. But not waking up at 5 every morning, is really, really glorious. To wake up at 8 is so nice.

More: Have you done any acting since?

PA: I just did [See If I Care], a little movie with Eva Mendes. And I’ve been working on [Boyhood] for many years with Richard Linklater, where we shoot a week a year for 12 years. I think we just shot our 9th or 10th year. So that’s always great.

More: Boyhood follows a kid from first grade at age 6 through 12th grade. Is it a far-reaching venture, like Michael Apted’s Up Series?

PA: Yeah, but it’s scripted. It’s been great to do those projects. But I feel like Haiti has become my full time job for now. I feel like I am reverse engineering my brain. Like, I don’t know how to do fundraising. But I lead with my heart. I do believe in the program so much.

More: By reverse engineering you mean, “[Fill in the blank] needs to be done. How do I do this?”

PA: Yeah, and I do it like a…fool. And I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m learning as I go along, but I have no airs about it. I understand that it’s a learning process. And I’m willing to learn. But I’m also looking for really good creative material because I am an artist. That’s another part of me that I do care about. I love acting. To me, acting is another way to connect with humanity. So is our project in Haiti.

More: What sort of projects are on GiveLove’s current roster?

PA: Right now there’s this new orphanage that we want to build out for seventy kids. We want to put in sanitation systems, a water filtration system for those kids and start community gardens. We have a huge list of people who want sanitation systems.

More: How can people help?

PA: Donate $2 on our website. Even little amounts help support these programs and our Haitian team and help us get volunteers over. Go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell your friends. People who have specific skill sets can volunteer their time.

Want to read about another celeb humanitarian? Check out our interview with supermodel turned activist Christy Turlington Burns.

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First Published Tue, 2011-05-31 10:40

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