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Hargitay comes to the rescue

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    Mariska Hargitay receives hookupu from members of her Hawaii Advisory Committee. The Joyful Heart Foundation gives support to survivors of rape, domestic violence and child abuse.

A dinner with Joyful Heart Foundation officials and local supporters marked a homecoming for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay, who was in town last week for a series of private appearances on behalf of the organization she founded.

The idea for starting the foundation, which offers support to survivors of rape, domestic violence and child abuse, came to her on a visit to Hawaii in 2000, when she went for a swim and emerged from the ocean knowing what she had to do.

She said no one incident led her to the decision to start the Joyful Heart Foundation. Instead, a combination of factors led her to her mission.

At the time, she was one year into what has turned out to be a long-running role on the NBC series as New York City Detective Olivia Benson, assigned to investigate sex crimes. In order to convincingly play the detective, Hargitay went through training and became a crisis counselor.

Because of the toughness tempered by sensitivity and compassion Hargitay brings to the show, in light of Benson’s back story as a child born from a rape, "I started getting fan mail different from what I’m used to," the Emmy-winning actress said. "They’re usually along the lines of, ‘Hey, you’re cute; can I get an autographed photo?’ But now, people were disclosing to me, ‘Your show saved my life; I was abused by my father since I was 5.’

"It became my vision and passion to do something to help these women heal from their trauma," she said during an interview Wednesday at Neiman Marcus, where she joined jewelry designer/CEO Robin Renzi of Me & Ro, who showed her Joyful Heart jewelry and fall collections. A percentage of funds raised from sales of Joyful Heart jewelry benefits the foundation, and to date, Me & Ro’s contribution has totaled more than $300,000.

The partnership between the two women began when Hargitay discovered a Me & Ro pendant that read "Fearlessness" in Sanskrit on the front and in English on the back. "She was wearing it backward," Renzi said. "Maybe she doesn’t remember, but I remember."

Hargitay wore the piece on "Law & Order: SVU" and viewers grasped its message, which has come to define Detective Benson.

Although the two had never met, Hargitay called Renzi with the idea of a partnership to help Joyful Heart’s fundraising efforts.

"Robin was one of the first people who signed on. Before I even finished my sentence, she said yes," Hargitay said.

For Renzi, the decision was easy. For one thing, they are both warm, compassionate kindred spirits and Renzi said, "She cries a lot and so do I."

Beyond that, Renzi explained, "One of my closest friends was a victim of sexual abuse from her stepfather, and I’ve known her since I was 19, so it’s an issue that’s very close to my heart.

"Sexual abuse is horrible because you lose power and you lose yourself to someone else who tries to take it away from you, and people are ashamed to talk about it. So what Joyful Heart does is talk about it, and the discussion changes everything," Renzi said.

"Can you imagine someone watching TV and seeing someone like Mariska, who’s accessible and approachable and in charge, saying, ‘You do not need to be ashamed.’ That’s so important."

THE JOYFUL Heart Foundation was formally launched in 2004 to serve communities on the Big Island, Los Angeles and New York, and last year started outreach work on Oahu, partnering with such agencies as Child & Family Services, Prevent Child Abuse Hawaii, the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center, Sex Abuse Treatment Center of Hawaii, and the YWCA, and investing $2 million in the community.

"We tread gently, carefully. We ask to be invited," Joyful Heart Foundation chairman Tom Nunan said. "New York is tough, but Hawaii is even tougher and you only have one chance to make an entrance."

According to the foundation’s Hawaii program manager, Lisa Denning, Joyful Heart does not want to usurp local agencies but is there to pick up after crisis treatment. "We take a holistic approach to healing. We want to help people dig deeper, rediscover their joy and passion in life, and a safe way to be in their bodies again, discover what makes them feel alive again," she said.

Not knowing what’s involved in running a foundation didn’t deter Hargitay, any more than suffering from a sore throat stopped her from a spate of press interviews, during which she sipped tea to battle the effects of 14 1/2-hour work days on the "Law & Order" set, and cross-country travel to appear on the Emmy Awards telecast last Sunday.

There is too much work to be done, and one issue at the top of her list is dealing with the "rape kit" backlog that, if processed in a timely manner, might identify and lead to the arrest of more rapists. (A rape kit is used to gather DNA and other evidence from victims.)

After more than a decade, "Law & Order: SVU" shows no signs of running out of story lines, often adapted from real cases. "Sadly, they won’t, because when I tell you that studies have found one in four women have been abused, you look around and what does that tell you?" Hargitay said.

"I feel like I was handed this opportunity to shed light on darkness, and Hawaii has been key to all of this."


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