How Rainn Wilson Funded His Own Charity for an Entire Year in Haiti

Rainn Wilson Charity - H 2014
Courtesy of The Lide Foundation

The actor and his wife held the first benefit for their arts-focused Lide Foundation on Wednesday night in L.A. after self-funding it: "We wanted to have a proven track record."

Something as simple as asking a child what their favorite color is isn’t so simple in Haiti. According to actor Rainn Wilson and his wife Holiday Reinhorn -- founders of the year-old Lide Foundation, which provides arts education to girls in the country – many girls they work with hardly know how to respond. “You can tell from the look in their eyes that no one has ever asked them that question. Because no one had valued them enough to ask,” says the actor, known for his Emmy-nominated run on The Office on NBC.

The arts, they’ve found, are a way to let them know they matter. On Wednesday night, Dec. 10, the couple, along with foundation director Kathryn Adams, held their first fundraiser for the organization at the Phyllis Morris furniture showroom in West Hollywood, Calif. In one room, mounted photos lined the perimeter, all shot by the youth in the Lide program. In addition to photography, the 450 girls who Lide works with in rural areas of Haiti learn creative writing, visual arts and theater, in some cases workshops taught by Wilson as drama coach.

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Wilson and Reinhorn, a fiction writer, first visited Haiti weeks before the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010.  The couple had traveled there to visit schools sponsored by the Mona Foundation, where Wilson serves on the board and which supports international education initiatives. “The first time I came to Haiti I fell in love it. I fell in love with the heart and soul of the country which are the people, especially the young women,” says Reinhorn. On the other hand, adds Wilson, “I was flabberghasted by the poverty and the trauma I saw in the country.”

Then the earthquake hit. “I couldn’t even imagine losing 200, 300,000 thousand people in 40 seconds,” recalls Wilson. By the end of the year, the couple had traveled back to Haiti after hearing about a U.N.-sponsored program at the Petionville camp run by Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization. The program though wasn’t giving out food or providing clean water. It was offering arts workshops. Admits Wilson: “I started being very skeptical. Why would girls need the arts?” But he and Reinhorn signed on for a short stint. He as drama coach; she as writing teacher. “When I came and joined the camp, the transformation I saw was extraordinary. Girls who were listless and self-conscious were brimming with confidence and pride. They were hanging photos they had taken and singing songs for their family and friends and showing visual arts they had made. And so many of them got excited to continue the learning process because of the experience they had with the arts.”Reinhorn was won over as well. “One of my students said to me, ‘People come to Haiti and give us rice and shoes and water but it doesn’t matter if we don’t have hope and that’s what we have here.’

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Adams – who holds degrees in writing, education and clinical psychology -- was the coordinating director of that program. She now lives full-time in Haiti running Lide, having given up a tenured professorship at California’s Moorpark College.  “Let me [also] point out that Kathryn moved from a beautiful bungalow in Malibu,” says Wilson.

The actor and his wife self-funded the foundation in its first year. “We wanted to have a proven track record before asking other people to donate,” he says.

Lide, which can translate as either leader or idea, now goes beyond creative workshops to offer scholarships, teacher training and meals for its students, many of whom are lucky to eat more than once a day. Many of the girls can’t read or write and by age 11 are often no longer in school but are already working. In one rural area, girls whose families don’t own donkeys must travel two miles roundtrip three times a day to obtain water.

One girl whose transformation deeply touched Adams didn't know her own age or have a birth certificate after having been abandoned early on by her teenage mother. She lived with seven uncles who did metal work and the girl tended the metal works fires. “When she first came to us, they said she doesn’t speak. Well, she does speak. She just never had permission to speak. She would mouth words and no sound would come out,” says Adams. A breakthrough came during one workshop when the group was doing trust falls. “She did not want to do it,” says Adams. “Finally, she did it. She closed her eyes and said out loud, ‘I’m falling’ [in French]. She later said what made her happy is that every one caught her. She went from no language at all to being the first one to welcome a new girl into the group and loving theater and poetry. We are helping her go back to school through a scholarship and through our literacy program she’s begun to learn to read and write.”

Reinhorn will next travel to Haiti in January -- on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the earthquake -- to teach writing, along with actress Amy Brenneman who will teach a drama workshop. “The most powerful part,” says Reinhorn, “is for us to watch these girls we’re educating pass on what they’ve learned to others. They start to mentor the young girls. It’s a way of building community.”