Maria Bello is someone you’d want in your corner. Not because she’s one of Hollywood’s most fearless actresses. Or because she has a knack for getting an award whenever she stars in a movie. Or because she’s friends with the likes of Sean Penn and Crash director Paul Haggis. You’d want her in your corner because when life gets messy, she’s not one to shy away. She’s a pull-on-your-boots-and-get-to-work kinda woman. “Some people are patient, diplomatic or great negotiators,” says Maria. “I don’t have any of those skills! But what I do have is a fearless, physical and emotional spirit. I’ve always been one to dive into danger.”
That’s why when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Maria packed her backpack and was on a plane six days later. She had visited the country three years earlier and toured Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the Western Hemisphere. Together with Sean Penn, Paul Haggis and a team of nurses and doctors, she flew down again to help out on the ground. Working with local volunteers, she raised $5000, erected a tent in Cite Soleil and created a makeshift medical clinic for women and children.
Maria on her first day arriving in the Petionville camp after the earthquake.
Maria’s activism is not a product of her fame. Growing up in a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, she dreamed of being a lawyer fighting for women’s rights before a college acting class changed her path. Last month, on her 46th birthday, she spent the day perusing her old journals. “I thought it would be fun to read how I had turned into the woman I am today,” she says. “I found the page I had written the day I arrived in New York at 19, and it said I wanted to be an actress and an activist that helped people change the world. It was a pretty amazing feeling, reading those words from so long ago and knowing I had accomplished both of my dreams.”
Today, Maria’s NGO We Advance collaborates with over 40 other NGOs throughout Haiti. The clinic sees about 150 patients a day and she has created an education and outreach program that includes human rights and gender based violence classes. “I’ve seen some horrible things,” she says. “I’ve wrapped up a six-week-old baby in tissue paper. I’ve been to the morgue. I’ve sat with women who have been beaten and raped. I’ve held little kids who were dying. What’s that like for me? It’s not about me. I’m a guest. I simply feel honored to be able to be with them and hold them in their moment.”
Here’s more with the wonderfully sharp, tough and compassionate Maria Bello on her work in Haiti, teaching her 12-year-old son about kindness and, of course, how she stays so beautiful (and no, it’s not due to excessive exercise or clean living!):
Maria with two children who live in the slum of Cite Soleil.
Ulrica: Most of us only talk about wanting to help, but you actually get on a plane and do it. What inspires you?
Maria: My grandmother was a seamstress and she had to support four children in a house with a dirt floor. Ever since I was a little girl, she’d tell me, ‘If you have a small piece of bread and ten people come to your house, you cut that piece into ten pieces and feed them.’ That always stuck with me. People always ask why I’m doing all this. I’m doing it because I’m a mother and a human being, and because I know that if I’m not part of the solution I’m part of the problem.
Maria at the We Advance clinic in Haiti.
Ulrica: Tell me about the day the news hit about the earthquake in Haiti:
Maria: I was in a meeting and my boyfriend at the time came running in and told me what had happened. I immediately packed my backpack and for days went looking for a way to get down there, but everyone told me it was too dangerous. Then my friend Sean Penn got a plan and Paul, Sean and myself and a team of volunteers, doctors and nurses went down with medical supplies and medicine. One morning, we stumbled upon a camp with 50,000 people on a golf course. I started working in the camp the same day. The women in the camp would come to me with lists of things they needed and who they needed it for. They were so organized. With the help of Sean, we put up a tent and within two weeks it was being run by these women. It was extraordinary. There were no services in Cite Soleil because it was so dangerous, but I said screw it, we’re going to work here because this is where the need is the greatest.
Maria with a young boy named Samson at the We Advance clinic.
Ulrica: You’ve experienced some heart-wrenching moments through your work in Haiti. How do you handle it emotionally?
Maria: I know it might sound strange, but those are not emotional, difficult moments for me. I don’t look at it that way. In a way they’re not my moments. They belong to the people who are suffering and are in pain. They’re prayerful, graceful moments.
Maria with Dr. Broad at the clinic.
Ulrica: We Advance focuses on empowering the women in the community. Why?
Maria: The truth is, when women hold the purse strings in the family, more money go towards education, food and well-being. That’s just a fact. When you empower women, the safer the country gets and the better the economy gets. It’s not something we’re pulling out of thin air. It’s statistically proven. So what we’re doing in Haiti is helping educate and empower women so they can take care of their families and strengthen the whole country.
Ulrica: How do you teach your 12-year-old son Jackson about compassion?
Maria: He’s never been to Haiti, but he’s so invested in what we do there because we have friends from Haiti staying with us all the time. In a way, he has an Haitian family. He’s a very compassionate kid. We went to Africa four years ago and worked in the slums in Kenya. He was fearless. He walked around these slums with such generosity of spirit. I thought, if I can instill anything in my kid it would be this sense of fearlessness and compassion.
Maria outside the We Advance clinic with her friend, human rights activist, folk singer and artist Barbara Guillaume.
Ulrica: Apart from acting, what do you do that feeds your soul when you’re home in Los Angeles?
Maria: I take a hot bath! I wish I could say I do yoga, I meditate and I run, but I don’t do anything! I don’t really exercise, I drink coffee in the morning, I smoke cigarettes and when I make dinner I have a glass of wine. I would like to be that girl but I’m just not right now! I also write, which is one of my biggest passions. I found a play I had written in New York about pro-choice when I was 22 years old. I’ve written a novel I never published. I have filled about 200 journals with writing. I wrote a pilot last year. I know it’s something that’s going to be very important to me in the next part of my life.
Ulrica: So what’s your secret to looking so great?
Maria: Honestly, I go up and down about 10 lbs. and now I’m up about 10 lbs. I really try to be at peace with my body, even though I’m not all the time. I try to tell myself that wherever I’m at, that’s where I’m at. And that applies especially right now in my life. I just turned 46 and I’m pre-menopausal. It’s interesting to see my body changing. But that means I’m struggling even more than usual. To be in acceptance of that is part of my journey.
Ulrica: If you could have one wish for We Advance right now, what would it be?
Maria: My biggest need is for people to partner with us and write us checks. The greatest gift right now is for someone to donate, because I’m going to do something amazing with it!
Maria next stars opposite Adam Sandler and Kevin James in Grown Ups 2, premiering July 12. She also stars opposite Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhall and Viola Davis in Prisoners, premiering in September. You can learn more about Maria and We Advance on her website and on We Advance’s official site. If you’d like to make a donation, please click here.
Top portrait photograph courtesy of Maria Bello. Photographs from Haiti by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly ©2013.