I read this blog post by my friend Norman Golightly and wanted to share it with you here.
Norm is proof that all people in Hollywood aren’t douche bags. I’m honored to call him my friend and I am blessed to be a part of his journey. Enjoy!
Packing for any trip can be tricky, especially with those pesky baggage fees. Paring down all the things you want to bring to the absolute necessities. I’m about to leave for the Cannes Film Festival, which requires a certain level of vêtements de fantaisie (that’s “fancy clothes” in French, and yes, I looked that up). After that week in the luxurious south of France, I will head directly to the Cura Rotary Home outside of Nairobi, Kenya – an orphanage for fifty children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. I’ll be living there for about a month. It’s my third time doing so.
Not being an orphan, nor Kenyan, you may be wondering about my repeated lodging at a rural orphanage in Africa. I was very lucky to find success early in Hollywood – I started working with Nicolas Cage at the age of twenty-five and was his producing partner by twenty-seven. In the twelve years of our working together, I produced fifteen films and a television series. Living for months at a time in locations like Melbourne, Bangkok, Cape Town, my life moved fast. The phone never stopped ringing and I racked up the frequent flier miles of a pilot.
It was a really good life, but then, it all changed. Our company closed and I found myself without a job for the first time in my life. The phone suddenly stopped ringing and the silence was deafening. The people who had depended on me for so long, now were slow to return my call, if they even did. A few weeks later, a former co-worker whom I liked very much, was killed in a freak car accident. I hate when car accidents are called “freak” – they’re that by their very nature but when an outrigger canoe flies through your face after it detaches from a trailer tethered to a car coming from the opposite direction on a deserted stretch of Hawaiian highway – well, that’s really freak.
The loss of job and the loss of friend caused me to freeze for a moment. Life suddenly seemed much less certain than it did only weeks prior. What if a canoe flew through my face? What would I leave behind? Who was I if I no longer had the job title I had held for one third of my life? I momentarily slumped into depression. I didn’t leave my house much and the Domino’s delivery guy came with such regularity that he knew the name of my dog and not to dare forget the extra cup of icing with my cinnamon sticks.
Unlike the cinnamon sticks, some of my experiences in Hollywood had left a bad taste in my mouth. And it wasn’t just the others – I wasn’t sure I liked who I had become. The compass of my soul was broken and I decided that I might be best served by using a real compass and getting away. Far away. I had always been involved with local charities (Fulfillment Fund, Food on Foot), but there was something slightly too comfortable about my effort. I might pass out food to the homeless, but I still got to go home to my house and pool. I searched high and low for a place where I could get uncomfortable. I then recalled a conversation with Amy Eldon Turteltaub, wife of Jon, with whom I had worked on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Amy was born in Kenya and her father still lived in Nairobi. Remembering that she had mentioned that her father was one of the co-founders of an orphanage in the region, I reached out.
Amy, who now runs the stellar non-profit Creative Visions Foundation, was a bit surprised that I literally wanted to move into the Cura Rotary Home, but she passed me around to the team. There hadn’t been a large volunteer contingent previously, so there was no set program. I liked that. I was given the green light, then advised of hotels where I could stay in Nairobi for my daily commute to the orphanage. I immediately bucked at this – firstly, I felt that if I was paying for a hotel and not staying at the home itself, I would really just be subsidizing my feeling good about myself, and it would be better spent on the children. And it didn’t fit with my desire to be, uncomfortable. After some haggling, I was permitted to stay at the orphanage itself – I was eventually lodged in a storeroom in the medical clinic. The rusty I.V. stand made for a fine coat rack.
I was asked to create some sort of program around my trip. I liked photography and thought it might be a good hobby to share with the kids. I reached out on Facebook and created a group called Kenya Spare A Camera, asking people to donate their used digital cameras. I never expected the terrible pun to stick, but three years later, Kenya Spare A Camera (the “group” on Facebook and the site) continues to grow each year.
I was admittedly nervous on my first trip. Would the kids like me? What was I even really going to do there? Cameras? You idiot! They probably need food, not cameras. My fears were extinguished upon my arrival at the orphanage.
You know that feeling you get when you step out of an air-conditioned car on a really hot day? A wall of heat enveloping you? I got that feeling getting out of the car at Cura – not being enveloped by heat, but rather by love. A crushing mass of hugs and smiles.
I would spend a month there during that first trip and my activities ranged from helping further the existing farm by raising money to purchase a dairy cow and chickens, tutoring the children, and sometimes, just being a friend to the kids. I slept on the floor. I ate food that I could neither pronounce nor digest. I battled an outhouse that would be labeled cruel and unusual punishment in a more civilized place. And, it was the happiest time of my life. With rare exception I would have days filled with purpose and joy – it’s quite incredible how inextricably those things are linked. The fulfillment I found during this time has focused my purpose in entertainment. I now center my efforts to create content that matters. Socially relevant. Historically significant. Thought-provoking.
As there are forty million orphans in Africa, these kids are likely not being adopted. So it’s more of a group home than our customary view of an orphanage. That means that Henry, who was four when I first visited, will still be there when I return in ten years. This situation creates a palpable bond between the children themselves, and between the children and visitors who return. At the end of my first stay, the question was “will you come back?” That has now changed to, “when will you be back?” I always thought I would have had children of my own by now, and I guess I do. Fifty of them. In Africa.