Coco Rocha on “Letters To Haiti”
December 5th, 2011 / Horacio Silva
Coco Rocha slinks down the catwalk like it’s nobody’s business, but she also knows how to walk it like she talks it. A social entrepreneur in training heels, the Canadian-born Coco is involved with several charities, including LakayPAM, a non-for-profit organization that provides more than 500 orphans in Haiti with shelter, food, medical care and education. (Haitian-born Cedrick Roche and his wife Carolina Bittencourt founded the charity.) Earlier this year, Coco and another model friend Behati Prinsloo visited Haiti to see the devastation first-hand and to deliver the children with letters from the international pen-pal initiative she started for them. A screening of a documentary short of the trip, and an accompanying exhibition for charity, is being held on Wednesday night at Milk Studios. Horacio Silva caught up with the conscionable cutie.
Coco Rocha on "Letters to Haiti"
HS: How did the film, which I know is a real labor of love and was directed by your husband James Conran, come to be?
When the earthquake in Haiti hit, James and I were in an airport and we began to talk about what needed to be done and specifically what we could do. We teamed up with a friend of ours Carolina, whose husband Cedrick is Haitian, and hosted a great event for their charity LakayPAM. We sold a whole bunch of stuff with proceeds going to the kids. Six months later did the same thing, but instead of continuing this way, we thought, ‘We need to kinda see what these kids are all about, who they really are, put a name to the face.’
So we decided to go to Haiti and bring a video crew showing what people are doing, what their money is going towards. Kids love tactile things, and although they know that there are funds coming in, they don’t really understand it all. We figured that what a kid needs above anything is love and so we had this idea to have kids around the world write these letters to these kids, so they would have something tangible and in return they would write back to them.
HS: What was the reaction like?
Amazing. I got emails of people saying, ‘Thank you very much, it made me feel like I could contribute from my neighborhood.’ So it not only helped the young kids there in Haiti, but also helped kids around the world feel better about being able to help.
HS: So what about the actual trip, what was that like? I’m assuming that neither of you had ever been there before.
No, never. We left in the middle of winter in New York and we arrived to sweltering heat. You arrive to an airport that is mostly collapsed. It is still a temporary hangar and all very haphazard. From the minute you arrive you realize that you’re approaching a very chaotic situation. It’s definitely a culture shock.
HS: How safe is it?
Well, we rented cars and drove ourselves through the streets, but we had a bodyguard with us at all times because there are a lot of kidnappings still, especially of visitors and aid workers. Cedrick came with us and gave us curfews and would specify areas that weren’t safe to go into.
HS: What’s the biggest take away from the experience?
You assume these kids would just have a gloomy life and be always in such despair and depressed, but it’s not the case. They were just so excited that we were giving them attention. Show them a little bit of attention and they are your best friend for the rest of the time you’re there…they become your shadow.
HS: It comes across in footage that I saw.
They’re super sweet. But a lot of the adults were kind of over the whole thing. They see us showing up with video cameras, and you know, how many times have they seen video cameras, and nothing’s changed, nothing’s helping. So I could tell that the adults in the area were just like, ‘Get that out of my face.’ But the kids just love cameras.
HS: What else happens in the movie?
Basically, we go there and discover that not much has been the year that has past. Only 6 percent of the rubble has been moved and the place is still in a mess. But these small orphanages are functioning smoothly and have a caring environment. We go to a tent city and see how people are still living there, with seemingly no hope of ever getting out. We see that the country still needs a lot of help. Even though from the perspective of people in America, where people figure that a lot of money has been sent to Haiti, they think Haiti should be fine. It’s hard to know where the money has gone in general but it hasn’t appeared to benefit the average person there at all.
I’m sure there are any number of people who have fattened their pockets through that money, but the average person has not seen the benefit of that money.
HS: So where to now with this project?
LakayPAM supports a few orphanages in Port au Prince. They also fund a soccer program for a few hundred boys. For some of these boys, the only square meal that they get in a day is at soccer practice. But they want to continue to expand. Right now they have about four or five hundred children that they aid through the program, but obviously there is a whole country full of children that could use their help.
Their newest program is giving well-bred bulls to the farmers so they can produce better cattle. The farmers have nothing really. So sort of random things that you feel would necessarily have an impact, help change.
HS: What’s the plan for tomorrow night at MILK Studios?
We’re going to be showing the video here and at the same time they will have all the pictures that Behati, who is a really good photographer, took on the trip. Then we hope to have some famous photographers auction off some of their work so that we can make the most amount of money for the kids.
HS: Do you plan to go back?
Yes, we’d love to. Maybe early next year, we’ll see how things are progressing down there.
HS: And, if kids want to send letters now is it too late?
Definitely not too late. They can be sent care of Wilhelmina. And once we get a certain chunk of them, Cedrick will then take them down and start the process all over again.
Photos By: Behati Prinsloo