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Celebrities walk the walk
18 December 2007
by by Karen Foerstel

In years past, celebrities worked with charities as basic spokespeople, simply showing up to sound studios to record public service announcements, or giving large donations to disaster relief agencies by signing checks from their living rooms.

But increasingly, movie stars, pop singers, professional athletes and other glitterati are getting their hands dirty, traveling to some of the worlds’ most remote places to personally help out those in need.

“In my opinion, you’ve got to help others and being busy is no excuse—you just have to make the time to help,” said actor Seth Green, who has worked with such charities as Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. “That’s why I volunteer and support these organizations.”

England's Prince Harry began special training this fall to volunteer with the charity MapAction. Using a combination of techniques including satellite imagery, global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), and on-the-ground observation, MapAction produces maps during natural disasters that highlight the areas where emergency attention is needed most. The maps also pinpoint important logistical and transport facilities, such as working bridges, undamaged roads and potential landing sites for helicopters.

Volunteers in the field update the maps hour-by-hour, enabling aid agencies to deliver assistance where it can save lives and relieve suffering. Among the places MapAction is working: in Mexico, where poor villages have been devastated by recent floods, and in the Dominican Republic, where tropical storms have displaced 64,000 people. To be considered for training as a volunteer with MapAction operational team, you need to be experienced with GIS technology. Learn more about how you can volunteer with MapAction by visiting their website at

UNICEF, the United Nations organization that supports needy children around the world, has a number of celebrity “good will ambassadors” who regularly travel to remote locations to help communities struggling against poverty, AIDS, hunger and natural  disasters. Action star Jackie Chan has traveled to Cambodia several times to visit HIV/AIDS and landmine rehabilitation projects supported by UNICEF. Actor Danny Glover has also worked with UNICEF to help landmine victims, traveling to Ethiopia where more than 80 percent of the 15,000 to 20,000 landmine victims each year are civilians, and at least one in five are children.

You can volunteer with UNICEF—whether you are a celebrity or not—by contacting the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) program. Those with undergraduate degrees and several years of work experience can work with a variety of UN projects in developing countries around the world. Visit the UNV website for more information.

Like UNICEF, the American Red Cross makes good use of celebrities to work directly in the field with communities—and also draw big attention to the issues they are working on.

In recent years, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and his brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, went to Baton Rouge with the Red Cross to deliver nearly 31,000 pounds of supplies to people struggling to rebuild their communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Other celebrities working with the Red Cross include Jamie Lee Curtis, Heidi Klum, Tim McGraw and Vivica A. Fox. To see how you can volunteer with the Red Cross, visit their website at

To read more about celebrities and their work with a variety of charities, check out Look to the Stars. The website lists hundreds of celebrities and the charitable causes they work with. The site’s goal is to inspire fans to follow their idols and work towards helping those less fortunate.

And if you know more about how celebrities are becoming voluntourists—or how you may have been inspired by a celebrity to volunteer—let me know!

International Volunteer Day
In case you missed it, December 5 was International Volunteer Day (IVD). The United Nations General Assembly adopted IVD by resolution in 1985 to give volunteer organizations and individual volunteers the opportunity to highlight their contributions, and to encourage others to follow suite.

To mark IVD this year, the Association of Voluntary Service Organisations—a European network of voluntary service organizations based in Brussels— launched the “Invisible Heroes” campaign to collect as many photos of serving volunteers for one year. The campaign kicked off on the IVD 2007 and runs for 12 months, until Dec. 5, 2008.

The campaign is aimed at demonstrating the magnitude of voluntary service in Europe, and convincing key decision makers to give the issue more attention.

If you have photos of volunteer activities in Europe, send them to this address, specifying the project and location.

Karen Foerstel writes and travels from London. She co-authored Climbing the Hill: Gender Conflict in Congress, a history of women in Congress, and a Biographical Dictionary of Women in Congress.