One of the organizations is Women for Women International, which was founded to help women in war-torn regions. “Oh that must be–dear God–about twenty years ago when I met Zainab Salbi, who just came back from Pakistan,” she says. “And shortly before that she was on her honeymoon with Amjad Atallah, a marvelous Palestinian young man, in Kosovo, and realized the horrors of the war and wanted to do something for women.”
Women can sponsor “sisters” in affected areas, enabling them to take part in a year-long program in which they learn a trade and their legal rights, as well as hygiene, nutrition, and parenting. This has had a multiplying effect on the families and communities of the women who have taken part. The program, has trained 372,000 women between 1993 and 2012. “Zainab has done enormously,” Eva says, “And it’s one of those organizations that I was privileged to be there in the beginning.”
Another organization which Eva has been with since the beginning was founded by two opera singers, Monica Yunus and Camile Zamora, who wanted to make art more accessible. In its most high profile project, Sing for Hope (of which Eva is a trustee) brings 88 vividly decorated pianos to the streets and parks of New York City. On display for 2 weeks, the public artwork invites spontaneous performances and audiences from passerby. Additionally, Sing for Hope’s outreach program brings 1,500 professional artists to schools and healthcare facilities to teach in after school programs or perform concerts for hospital patients. In a promo clip, a staff member reports on how patients feel transported for a short while by the music, away from their suffering and surroundings. “For some, it may be the last concert they ever hear,” Eva says.
“When I first met these two young women,” she recalls, “and they were telling me about their ambitious goal to make this all happen, I said ‘Do you have a 501(c)3?'”
“You cannot do it yourselves alone,” she told the friends, “You have a career, you have a family, and if you want to have an organization, these are the things you have to have.” That, says Eva, was “a turning point. Because they realized yes, they do want to have an organization. And have 1500 volunteers going into schools. And in order to make it happen, they had to see that which I projected for them.”
“Now really and truly that’s not a big deal,” she adds.
“Transmitting information” is one of the aspects of mentoring, according to Eva, and applying for 501(c)3, or, non-profit status, is just one of many steps needed to create success. Eva deflects praise: the advice “just happened to be part of my life’s experience,” she says. I press Eva and ask if she isn’t being modest. Isn’t there more to mentoring than transmitting information?
“You know when one lives as long as I have, the circles of friendship, acquaintanceship and collaborators is almost mind-blowing. Very often I would say, ‘Hey, you know I would love to introduce you to that person or another person who would be so excited to work with you or to help you or to give you some ideas.’ So I think that is the greatest value I can provide others. And basically, you know, that’s not hard work. It is almost like, ‘how easy it is to be helpful.’ It really is.”
An organization in which she acted as a connector was Video Volunteers: “I got involved with it on an elevator, which is really the story of my life. I was going up in an elevator and there was a young woman [Jessica Mayberry] in the elevator. And it turned out we were both going to the same place, namely her parents’ home.”
Jessica’s mother had hoped Eva would convince her not to go to India to carry out her idea to train communities to produce videos that address issues relevant to their community. However, “The more I heard from the daughter and what she wanted to do,” says Eva, “the more I supported it.”
Jessica remembers the encounter well: “By the time we reached the floor we were going to she’d made me feel confident instead of anxious. By the time the party ended that evening, she’d gotten me a three-month documentary internship with her friend Kathy Eldon, and had convinced me to head to India.”
Eva also connected Jessica to fine-art photographer Lekha Singh, who recently produced the Netflix documentary The Square. Singh gave Video Volunteers its initial funding in the form of a $40,000 grant. “That was the make or break moment for me as a beginning social entrepreneur,” says Jessica, who had been torn between remaining in mainstream media or pursuing her idea of a grassroots Reuters in the most media-deprived parts of India.
The organization puts the power of filmmaking in the hands of community producers, who can take evidence to government administrators. The officials in turn have the evidence which gives them the leverage they need to act when citizens report on corruption or on the needs of the community.
Video Volunteers estimates their work has benefited over a million people since it was founded in 2003. “This wouldn’t have happened without Eva,” says Jessica.
WE SPEND THE REMAINING TIME talking about two organizations which bookend the last two decades: Free the Children, of which she has been the American board chair for 17 years, and her latest cause, The Exonerated, the board of which was formed just two days prior to this interview.
Free the Children began one morning when 12-year old Canadian boy Craig Kielberger was reading the paper. He was stunned to see the caption, “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered” next to a photo of a boy his own age, Iqbal Masih: From the ages of 4 to 10, Iqbal had lived as a bonded child laborer chained to a weaving loom in a carpet factory in Pakistan. He escaped and spoke out against child labour, gaining the attention of the media, for which he was assassinated. Craig tried to find out everything he could about child laborers. He and a group of 11 friends decided to fight child labor, later becoming Free the Children.
The principle of the organization is children helping children. Children in developed countries raise funds for the Adopt a Village Program, which builds schools and water wells in 8 developing countries, as well as addressing medical treatment, food security and alternative income. The organization estimates that, since 1995, it has provided 55,000 students with education every day, and a million people with improved access to clean water, healthcare and sanitation. It also boast an impressively figure of 10% for administrative costs, owing to partnerships with corporations who provide in-kind donations.
Eschewing handouts, it takes a holistic approach to investing in infrastructure. Where a traditional charity might donate a water pump, which may be too expensive to repair when broken, Free the Children ensures that communities are to repair water projects.
In 2002, Craig was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, but lost to Jimmy Carter.
“My greatest joy is to help young people when they’re struggling with a good idea, with clearly something that could make a difference. I love to help them,” Eva says, “And we have about 1,000 schools, clinics, hospitals and villages that we have built with our grandchildren, who go every year with the local children in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. And it’s another one of those things it’s lovely to look at and to know that it happened.”
17 YEARS LATER, EVA IS NO LESS EXCITED for her most recent project, The Exonerated. I find out Sunny, who had earlier told me Eva was a great mentor, is one of its founders, along with her husband, Peter Pringle. “I met Sunny and Peter [Pringle] at a dinner party, and fell in love with them immediately,” Eva says.
What the couple had in common before they met was the horrific experience of being accused of a capital crime, unjustly convicted and sentenced to death row. When each of them were exonerated and released from jail, Sunny in the US, and Peter in Ireland, they joined the fight to end capital punishment. They met at an Amnesty International event and fell in love. Their dream is to create a residence in Ireland to help transition people who were wrongly accused of capital crimes and later found innocent.
“And you know, when I met Peter and Sunny,” says Eva, “that was a leap of faith. Of feeling that if I could be honored to meet 2 people who have sacrificed whatever life they have to help others the way they have, that was my leap of faith and their leap of faith with me to want to connect their lives to ours.”
AS WE WIND DOWN, I ask Eva how to get people who don’t care about social issues to care. She responds, “These are drops. None of us are creating an ocean. But we are dropping little drops of water. And it does create ripples. And I think that we have to be satisfied with the fact that each of us can only create the ripples. Actually we are lucky when we can.”
Eva leaves us with Sunny and Peter, and we film an impromptu interview with the couple. We find out they were married right there in Eva’s home. At one point, Sunny says it was worth having been wrongly accused and spent years in prison, so that she could meet Peter and they could have this life together helping others. They have such goodwill despite their incredibly harrowing experiences, it is difficult to remain unmoved.
The afternoon feels magical with this unexpected meeting. Eva sees us off, asking “Can we use the footage–it could be useful to them?” “Absolutely,” I say, glad we can be helpful in some way. When she looks at me, it is with the same penetrating look. Withholding judgment, looking deeply as if to see what is there. Almost invisibly, she’s played the role of connector again, connecting another life, another cause. In a flash I imagine how many lives she has touched.
And I think back to that story of the Nazi soldier she played off jokingly. I imagine that soldier–for, is the Nazi a Nazi in that moment when he lets the Jewish girl escape?–being given that piercing stare by a 14-year old Eva Haller; and I feel how completely convinced he must have been: that she was indeed far too young, and too beautiful, and how she must live.