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Cause Celeb: Mariska Hargitay

Actress Mariska Hargitay discusses the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization she founded to support women who have been sexually assaulted as part of  "Cause Celeb," a monthly feature  of "Give and Take,"'s ongoing special coverage of philanthropy.
Mariska Hargitay
Mariska Hargitay Tony Barson

Q: When did you start the Joyful Heart Foundation?

A: I started it up formally in 2002 but I got the idea in 2000; but starting a nonprofit is no easy feat so it took me a few years to figure out how to actually do it.

Q: And why this cause over others?

A: Well, after being on the show (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") I learned more about sexual assault than I wanted to. So originally, just to educate myself on the subject, I went through the SAVI (Sexual Assault Victim Intervention) program which is a rape-crisis-counseling program. I went through a 40-hour training to learn how to deal with victims as an actress on the show. When I realized the statistics I was horrified about how prevalent sexual assault is. So I wanted to do something because the thing that I learned most about it is that victims of sexual assault don’t have a voice. They are so plagued with shame and guilt-ridden and take on the blame like it was their fault that I thought I wanted to help give them a voice.  It was something that was so dark ... that I thought this is something that needs light shed on it. I was so proud to be on a show that was actually dealing with icky subject matters and icky issues that I thought, you know, I wanted to help women heal.

So, that’s when I started Joyful Heart and I thought I need to shed some light on this and give people a voice and make them think “Well, if Mariska’s talking about it, then it’s OK to talk about.”

Q: What exactly is your role with the charity?

A: I founded it, I started it, I do so many things. Obviously, I created the mission. My role is to help survivors heal mind, body and spirit. To continue to guide the mission to help women and girls live the best lives by trusting their instincts and empowering them through a variety of nontraditional therapies like making art, writing, surf camps and so forth.  We swim with dolphins. So, I oversee the whole thing, and I built it.

And what I’m still doing, is work with teens. I want to do teen-empowerment programs so I’m working with the Girl Scouts, and  I do different outreaches to high schools with girls to talk to them about following their instinct and entrusting themselves. I get a lot of e-mails saying, ‘Oh, I want to be like you, you’re so strong’ blah blah blah and I keep saying, ‘You are like me. The fact that you’re writing me, the fact that you’re attracted to this character shows that I’m just a mirror of what you are inside or else you wouldn’t be attracted to it or you wouldn’t want to be around it.’

Q: You say that swimming with dolphins is supposed to be a therapeutic thing for women who have been sexually abused. Do you think that is the most impressive thing that the Joyful Heart Foundation has been involved with?

A: I think it’s the most progressive thing. Joyful Heart is also the only organization in the country doing retreat programs for survivors of sexual assault. I think that we’re pioneering in this work. I think that dolphins have been used in the past for autism; a lot of autistic children work with dolphins but nobody has ever paired victims of sexual assault with the dolphins.  That was an idea I had because of my own experience which was … groundbreaking, euphoric, heart opening. I had never experienced anything like this for me. They have healing powers with their sonar and they can read the body and know exactly what is wrong emotionally and physically. 

My experience with swimming with the dolphins is that the light goes on and the trust is there and you feel so in communion with what felt to me like God because it’s so pure, it’s so natural. You’re with these huge beings that have no agenda with you, and victims of sexual assault are people that somebody had an agenda with and were objectified. And now all of a sudden, there’s a safety and it feels like … how do I describe it?  My analogy that I have is, you know in Get Smart when the doors all close? Well, this is like the doors all open and all of a sudden, a little light can get in to that soul that got hurt, that was traumatized. And once there’s a little light, it can grow.

Q:  Finally, why should people support the Joyful Heart Foundation?

A: Because we are empowering. Because one out of every three women in their lifetime will be assaulted and once you start talking about it you realize how prevalent this crisis is. JFH is helping women heal after a traumatic event to make them realize that there is support and healing.  It can happen for everyone but it happens in different ways.  And it’s about finding out how to talk … I think that if anything, when you’re shedding light on darkness, that is something that I think everyone should want to be a part of. 

For more information on the Joyful Heart Foundation, visit