“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world” — Dr. Paul Farmer
January 2010. In the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, millions of people are left displaced. Among them is a group of children — many disabled and without caretakers — situated within the General Hospital in Port-Au-Prince, whose lives are made even more vulnerable when the disaster inflicts damage upon their ward.
With thousands of severely injured citizens pouring into the undersupplied facility, the already-overwhelmed hospital staff is unable to provide these children with the appropriate level of care that they need. It’s evident something must be done… and fast.
Upon the request of the Haitian Government, Harvard-based doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer, along with human rights activist Loune Viaud — both of the non-profit organization Partners in Health, which aims to provide high-quality healthcare in settings of poverty — immediately come to their aid, transporting all the kids to a rural property in Croix-Du-Bouquets. Their effort eventually expands to incorporate a robust staff of caregivers, in addition to schooling, recreational activities, medical services and above all, a sense of ultimate safety and security. With this, they officially establish Zanmi Beni Children’s Home, now in its eighth year of commitment to “doing whatever it takes” in order to ensure the utmost quality of life for all the children it takes in.
But while Zanmi Beni indeed continues to flourish as a service institution today, having doubled the number of children taken under its wing since its inception, with operating costs on the rise as its staff continues to build toward the future, it’s apparent this not-for-profit organization remains in great need of help.
Enter three New York teens — Theo Dolan, Oscar Llodra, and Ella Stiller — in need of fulfilling a school community service requirement, with hopes of simultaneously leaving an indelible mark not only on their community, but on the world at large. Each with their own deep connection to the kids of Zanmi Beni (and given that Dolan and Stiller had even visited the site firsthand with their respective families), it seemed as if these two factions were destined to join forces.
The only question, of course, was: how? “We wanted to do something not only to make people aware of Zanmi Beni and what their [organization] does, but to [create] a space in which people can really think about community action…on a larger level,” Llodra explains.
All strong believers in the idea that “music has the power to transport you out of your daily life [in order to] make you feel something bigger,” they decided unanimously, on Dolan’s recommendation, that the fundraiser take the form of a concert. And with a strong passion for the theatrical — and a host of Main Stem connections between them — they deemed the Broadway route, though an ambitious one, the most natural way to go.
“People in the theatre community strive for one thing: to tell stories that matter,” explains Stiller, elaborating on the thought behind using the best of Broadway to convey such an important message. “We couldn’t think of a group of people who are more effective in making others feel.”
“The emphasis was not only on Broadway performers but on teen and child Broadway performers as well,” says Llodra, as a means of directly aligning themselves with the children they aimed to support.
As such, Dolan enlisted younger sister Evie, a standout Katie Travis (the bass player) in the original cast of School of Rock: The Musical, who helped to assemble a formidable group of young Broadway talent, consisting of fellow Demon Rascals and other showbiz teens.
Pooling their collective contacts together, the trio were able to nab additional big-named heavy hitters like Clarke Thorell, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Alice Ripley, and perennial power couple Orfeh and Andy Karl.
Finally, through mutual friends, they were introduced to Triad Theatre owner Peter Martin, incidentally revealed to be an alum of their high school, who graciously secured them the venue for the evening. And with that, on April 28th at 5:00pm, the aptly-titled “Broadway Hits for Haiti” became a reality.
For one, the feeling of communal support was palpable throughout the night, as joy and positivity emanated through the room with every song and speech. Thoughtfully chosen selections ranged from the silly to the sublime, all promoting messages of hope and perseverance as a means of inspiring change.
From pop hits to Broadway standards and flashy showstoppers to emotional ballads, “the evening was full of love from every angle,” says Stiller. “Be it [from] backstage, onstage or in the audience, [the concert] brought out the humanity in everyone and [served as] a powerful reminder of what we can accomplish when we all come together for a common goal.”
“We live in a very self-important nation and we need to open our eyes and our hearts — especially at this time in our history — to show our support and caring for people in need,” adds Dokuchitz, whose number, “You Walk with Me” from The Full Monty, spoke directly to those ideas. “It felt incredible to be singing alongside this very inspiring group of young adults.”
“It is so important to us to get the word out about what we do,” says Laurie Nuell, Zamni Beni co-founder, known affectionately as the “Godmother” of the organization. “To see so many people give their time and talent to help raise awareness and funding through the spectacularly magical [concert] was truly inspiring and heartening for all of us.”
But while the three producers (deservedly) revel in the success of the concert itself, not lost on them is the reality that their work has a genuine impact in altering lives – an element that only further fuels their advocacy for having young people stand up and speak out.
“Many people say that our generation ‘is the future.’ [The fact is], we are not only the future but the present,” says Stiller. “Every person our age should be fully aware or be striving to become fully aware of social and political issues that perpetuate injustice in the world.”
Adds Llodra: “We simply can’t have an ignorant generation of young people who don’t think about the bigger picture.”
Dolan admits he recognizes “young people think they can’t [produce] change, and therefore, they often don’t get interested in the issues affecting their lives.” However, citing that ever-popular Matilda mantra — delivered with verve by original cast member Oona Laurence — he urges youngsters to reconsider, declaring “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot!”
While they’re not quite as young as the precocious little bookworm, there’s no question these three phenoms exemplified her statement to the fullest.
Actor Ben Stiller wholeheartedly agrees. The versatile comedian, who presided over the event with his signature humor and heart, and who himself has long been a proponent of supporting health and education in Haiti, also praised the triumvirate for their acute awareness of the world around them. “I think the real triumph of the night was that they made it a wholly positive and uplifting experience, without shying away from the reality of the issues these kids are dealing with,” he adds, on the subject. “I certainly know I wasn’t thinking in such a selfless way at 16...and [I’m] really proud to have been part of what they created.”
“Producing this benefit was an incredible experience for us,” Dolan concludes, beaming on behalf of his friends and fellow producers. “We realize how much people want to see a better, more equitable world and [they’ll] wholeheartedly give you their time and support if you just ask. With that, we are committed to helping Zamni Beni now more than ever, and we know we will all be a part of the ZB family forever.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
In December 2014, Dolan and his younger sister, Evie, visited Zanmi Beni with their family. Here, we candidly quote each of them on the impact of their experiences.
“The [Zanmi Beni site] was so wonderful to visit….the kids were so happy, and so interested in everything we brought with us. We were able to [witness] the outpouring of love and support given to all of the kids there…it was a really beautiful thing to see” – Theo, age 16
“Seeing Zanmi Beni firsthand was so eye-opening for me….It really changed the way I view the world, and I now understand the concepts of privilege and structural violence and inequity so much more” – Evie, age 14
HERE’S TO THE MUSIC MAKERS!
Accompanists for the “Broadway Hits for Haiti” benefit concert included Roy S. George, Steven Jamail, Raghav Mehrotra, and Julie Reumert.
Broadway Hits for Haiti was presented on April 28th, 2018 at the Triad Theatre (158 W. 72nd Street) in New York, NY. For more information on Zamni Beni, including how to donate to the organization and/or “friend” a child, visit www.friendsofzb.org or text the phrase “Bway4Haiti” to 1-844-544-7171. For more on the concert itself, follow @broadwayhitsforhaiti on Instagram.