The media has a disheartening habit of bombarding us with minutiae about celebrities whose primary goals appear to be conspicuous consumption and making bail.
That’s why it was so refreshing meeting actress and activist Melissa Fitzgerald, who behaves the way you wish every celebrity would act in real life.
Melissa made a name for herself on television by playing Carol Fitzpatrick for seven seasons on the enormously popular and the critically acclaimed television series The West Wing.
She comes from a privileged, politically-connected family in Philadelphia who always preached the value of “giving something back.” She took the message to heart and has been involved with an impressive list of humanitarian efforts dating back to 1995. In that year she co-founded Voices In Harmony, a theater-based mentoring group that partners professional actors in L.A. with economically disadvantaged at-risk teenagers.
Today, we talk more about the time Melissa spent volunteering in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Uganda in the second part of an interview that my wife Kimi and I conducted.
DD: Tell us about the play you put on at the camps.
MF: We designed a specific curriculum to implement with the teenagers in one camp where they already had a drama club. We worked with fourteen teenagers and took along a professional playwright with us who helped them write two plays on any subject that they wanted to talk about. They chose HIV/AIDS and peace building and reconciliation, which are things that really affect them.
When it was time to perform the plays, we built a stage inside the IDP camp and about 1000 people came to see it. It was incredible.
DD: That must have been incredibly inspiring for them.
MF: It was incredibly inspiring for them and us! The thing that was so moving was that these plays were fun, and funny, and entertaining, but they also had a message to them. One of the boys who performed told of how both of his parents are HIV-positive. He said, “I am going to be an orphan, and I don’t want other kids to go through what I am going through.”
These kids were there from 8:30 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon volunteering and working very hard just to tell their stories. And every day, this one boy in particular showed up in a pressed shirt. Do you have any idea what it takes to iron a shirt without electricity? He had to have a heavy piece of iron and then heat it up in a fire just to press his shirt.
These kids were so sweet, kind, and loving, and many had been abducted by the rebels and forced to do horrific things, yet here they were on the other side of it saying, “I want to help my community.”
DD: What is the best way that people in the West can help in this situation?
MF: A great way to help is to go to the website www.resolveuganda.org and get on their alerts which will let you know when to contact the members of congress on behalf of northern Uganda. I have seen it work. I have been in their offices and they have told me, “I want to help, and it is great to know that the people in my district want me to do this.” You can also reach them from our www.voicesofuganda.org website, where you can see a trailer from the film.
DD: Do the tireless efforts you make on behalf of the Ugandans ever get overwhelming?
MF: Sometimes it’s kind of hard, because we have been working really hard on this project for well over a year. We have decided not to get paid so we can put everything into the project and our advocacy efforts, and I have basically put my acting career on hold. And there are times when I sit in my apartment and think, “I’m so tired, and I have no social life, and we don’t have enough money to finish the film,” and then I think, “Wait a minute. I’m in my apartment in Santa Monica, and no one is shooting at me, and I don’t have to worry about getting cholera or malaria.”
And then I’m reminded of the people in the camps. They have been suffering unspeakable horrors and most of the world has no idea what has been happening to them. It’s like they’re screaming and no one can hear them, and I can’t imagine a worse thing.
If we can have even a small impact in letting people know what is happening to them and asking people to take action to bring it to an end, how can I walk away from that opportunity? It’s a privilege.
DD: Does any single memory stand out from the camps?
MF: There was this group of little kids that I met who were so sweet, and they wanted to give me something. They had very little, but they gave me what they had. They ran over to me as I was leaving, and with big smiles on their faces, they gave me pebbles. It was beautiful.
UPDATE: In 2010, President Obama signed legislation aimed at ending the LRA’s reign of terror. Despite this effort, Joseph Kony continues to wage war in Uganda and neighboring countries.