Joyful Heart in the News

Going Beyond the Camera

August 13th, 2012
Wall Street Journal
Melanie Grayce West

For many actors, there's one break-out role that forever changes a career. For actress Mariska Hargitay, a star turn as Detective Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has meant forever changing the lives of victims of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence through her Joyful Heart Foundation.

Ms. Hargitay, a New Yorker, launched the foundation nearly a decade ago in response to mail (and the occasional stop on the street) from fans who said they were inspired by her role as a detective in a police unit that tackles sexually based crimes. Many of those fans, survivors of violence, confided their own personal stories to Ms. Hargitay. In those letters and emails, she says, it was often the first time a person recounted a story of abuse. "It made me realize how desperate they were to be heard, believed, supported and healed."

And so Ms. Hargitay, with the help of friends and those involved with the show, sought a way to help victims of violence heal and reclaim their lives. Rather than lend her name to another cause, she started the foundation, using her celebrity to bring attention to issues that are not necessarily well funded or easy to talk about.

At first, there were a lot of closed doors, concedes Ms. Hargitay, because domestic violence and abuse are "heavy and dark" issues and people are scared of them. "There's an entrenched lack of understanding."

Over time, the foundation, which focuses on awareness and advocacy, healing and wellness, has developed a roster of corporate partnerships and signature events, raising over $10 million since its founding.

The awareness and advocacy work of the foundation is about creating a community that responds differently to sexual violence; that makes survivorship something that can be embraced in the same way that people embrace breast-cancer survivors, says Ms. Hargitay. With a coalition of other groups, Joyful Heart has made reducing the backlog of untested rape kits that exist across the country its major policy initiative.

A main part of the foundation's work is to sponsor healing retreats for survivors of abuse and violence. It's a method with a "holistic approach to trauma," says Ms. Hargitay. Many people come to healing through traditional talk therapy, but for some survivors, that type of treatment doesn't always work and an alternative therapy is needed. "Sometimes I think that getting it out is not about words. It's about getting it out mind, body and spirit in a different way."

Funding for those retreats also extends to professionals who work with trauma victims. Counselors, social workers and those who work in law enforcement, among others, are repeatedly exposed to stories of trauma and often experience depression and anxiety. Though Ms. Hargitay has played one of these professionals on TV for some 14 years and fully admits she's in "make-believe world," the work is oppressive and the subject changes the way you think. "Hearing these stories day in and out, it changes your life."

Since 2004, some 10,000 survivors and professionals have been served through the foundation, with 4,000 in the last fiscal year alone. Now, male survivors of violence have started to reach out the foundation, too, a "huge sign of progress and growth," says Ms. Hargitay, adding that "it's an honor to help people begin again."


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