Image: Selita Ebanks and schoolgirls in Sierra Leone
Phyllis Galembo
Selita Ebanks  schoolgirls at the Muddy Lotus School in Kono, Sierra Leone, on May 23, 2008.
NBC News
updated 5/18/2011 4:49:35 PM ET 2011-05-18T20:49:35

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with fashion model Selita Ebanks about her work with Shine on Sierra Leone, a nonprofit organization that provides education, mentoring and nutritional support to schools in the west African nation.Ebanks became a model after moving to the U.S. from Grand Cayman. She signed on as a Victoria’s Secret Angel from 2005 to 2008. Ebanks has done modeling Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren and appeared in the 2007 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Recently, Ebanks launched a neo/postnatal health care program with SOSL to help save mothers and their babies. Ebanks donated the $20,000 that she won on Season 3 of "The Celebrity Apprentice" to this new program.Ebanks was to join television hostBill Maher and tennis star Serena Williams in hosting Shine on Sierra Leone's fifth annual fundraiser May 25 at the Venice, Calif., home of world-renowned photographer Philip Dixon.

Interviewed by Elizabeth Chang      

Q: How did you become involved with Shine on Sierra Leone?

Ebanks: I kind of stumbled upon Shine on Sierra Leone. I went to Sierra Leone with ELLE Magazine and a company called Ruff & Cut just to learn more about non-conflict diamonds and how these non-conflict diamonds companies … get that to the community in Sierra Leone. I didn’t know much about Sierra Leone in going down other than it was a war-torn country. They had a new government, and I was meeting the president and vice president. I had my questions about diamonds.

Well, Tiffany Persons (the director of Shine on Sierra Leone) was down there, and she invited us all to go to one of her schools called Muddy Lotus. So, we went, and that was pretty much the moment when I knew that I had to work with Shine on Sierra Leone. What they do for those people, it’s quite amazing. When we got to the school, there was a parade, and the school was in a very large village. There’s about 500 students at that school, and they were just so happy, so overwhelmed, to have visitors. We walked through the village, and they danced, and there was a presentation for us.

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But, afterward, we got to tour the actual classrooms. There were buildings that didn’t have roofs or windows, or proper desks, and things of that nature that I think every student should have. They were jammed into three classrooms, and at that moment I knew I had to help Shine on Sierra Leone build another building, which actually I just completed, and I’m pretty proud of. It can hold about 200 students. It has an amazing roof, and it’s built with this new sandbag method, which is going to sustain the weather and the longevity of the other buildings, far past the other buildings.

Q: Could you elaborate on your role within your organization?

Ebanks: Pretty much at this point, I think I’ve just become the rainmaker. Everywhere I go I just try to make people aware of the staggering statistics in Sierra Leone. For instance, one in five children die before the age of 6, one in eight to 10 women die at childbirth. There are seven hospitals in Sierra Leone, and there are more medical supplies in one American ambulance center than it is in all seven hospitals.

It’s pretty sad that women have to bring their own supplies to the hospital, their own gauze for instance, their own bandages, their own medication. Literally, if they don’t have it, then these women die. They die and their children as well. So, my role now is just to make people aware, just to educate people, just to encourage them to start their own organizations or even just to donate whatever it is to these children. It’s pretty much a part of my life now.

Q: What was your most memorable/touching moment you had while working with Shine on Sierra Leone?

Ebanks: It was just my initial introduction to the charity. Being there and having Tiffany hold my hand and look mein my eyes and cry … just to see how passionate she was and how serious this was. It was an awakening moment for me to think past my New Jersey condo and my New York City skyline view. It really helped me remember.

Their culture in Sierra Leone is very much like my own in the Grand Cayman Islands growing up. It really helped me remember my own culture, my own past and my own hardships, and it just made me realize that every child just needs a chance to grow up and be a child.

Q: What do you hope this organization can accomplish in the short and long term?

Ebanks: Right now we’re working with the government, health-wise. Shine on Sienna Leone does so many things for the people of Sierra Leone. There’s microloans, they’re building an eco-friendly village that is self-sustainable. There’s parenting and there’s a sports facility.

Right now we’re working with the government to rehabilitate Sierra Leone coming out of this long war they had. Now they have a new government, and I think their priorities are being straightened out. I believe health care is one of the main issues, being that they have the highest statistics in all of the nations of child mortality.

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I think the mission for Shine on Sierra Leone at this point, and myself, in the next five years is just to help lower those statistics. Women haven’t been given the respect or the courtesy of even being women; childbirth is supposed to be something that’s magical in any country that you’re in, and unfortunately it’s being taken away from these babies and their mothers. It’s almost like it’s a curse to get pregnant in Sierra Leone.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

Ebanks: I’ve helped raised a lot of money for Sierra Leone, I just won $20,000 on a TV show. I mean I’ll pretty much do anything, I’m shameless. I just really want the world to be aware of it, just to know that this is happening.

It’s something that’s so easy — $500 dollars … the average income of a doctor (in Sierra Leone) is $100 a month, that’s it. Fifty dollars per nurse. There’s only 10 to 12 doctors in one hospital, and that’s in the capital of Sierra Leone. There’s only like two pediatricians, and they don’t have any supplies. So it doesn’t matter how many doctors we have if there are no supplies and they can’t help the people.

Every little bit counts, and I just want to encourage people to visit the website, or just to educate themselves. There’s other amazing organizations that work in Sierra Leone as well, so if it’s not Shine on Sierra Leone, it can be any other organization that is helping the people in Sierra Leone. I’m really honored.

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