Coco Rocha on "Letters to Haiti"

Coco Rocha slinks down the catwalk like it’s nobody’s business, but
she also knows how to walk it like she talks it. A social entrepreneur
in training heels, the Canadian-born Coco is involved with several
charities, including LakayPAM, a non-for-profit organization that
provides more than 500 orphans in Haiti with shelter, food, medical
care and education. (Haitian-born Cedrick Roche and his wife Carolina
Bittencourt, a model at Coco’s agency Wilhelmina, founded the
charity.) Earlier this year, Coco and another model friend Behati
visited Haiti to see the devastation first-hand and to
deliver the children with letters from the international pen-pal
initiative she started for them. A screening of a documentary short of
the trip, and an accompanying exhibition for charity, is being held on
Wednesday night at Milk Studios. Horacio Silva caught up with the
conscionable cutie.

HS: How did the film, which I know is a real labor of love and was
directed by your husband James Conran, come to be?

When the earthquake in Haiti hit, James and I were in an airport and
we began to talk about what needed to be done and specifically what we
could do. You know, you can always put your name to an event, but
you’re not always really a part of it, so we wanted to do our own

We teamed with a friend of ours Carolina, whose husband Cedrick is
Haitian, and hosted a great event for their charity LakayPAM. We sold
a whole bunch of stuff with proceeds going to the kids. Six months
later did the same thing, but instead of continuing this way, we
thought, ‘We need to kinda see what these kids are all about, who they
really are, put a name to the face.’

So we decided to go to Haiti and bring a video crew showing what
people are doing, what their money is going towards. Kids love tactile
things, and although they know that there are funds coming in, they
don’t really understand it all. We figured that what a kid needs above
anything is love and so we had this idea to have kids around the world
write these letters to these kids, so they would have something
tangible and in return they would write back to them.

HS: What was the reaction like?

Amazing. I got emails of people saying, ‘Thank you very much, it made
me feel like I could contribute from my neighborhood area.’ So it not
only helped the young kids there in Haiti, but also helped kids around
the world feel better about being able to help.

HS: So what about the actual trip, what was that like? I’m assuming that
neither of you had ever been there before.

No, never. We left in the middle of winter in New York and we arrived
to sweltering heat. You arrive to an airport that is mostly collapsed.
It is still a temporary hangar and all very haphazard and from the
minute you arrive you realize that you’re approaching a very chaotic
situation. It’s definitely a culture shock.

HS: How safe is it?

Well, we rented cars and drove ourselves through the streets, but we
had a bodyguard with us at all times because there are a lot of
kidnappings still, especially of visitors and aid workers. Cedrick
came with us and gave us curfews and would specify areas that weren’t
safe to go into.

HS: What’s the biggest take away from the experience?

You assume these kids would just have a gloomy life and be always in
such despair and depressed, but it’s not the case. They were just so
excited that we were giving them attention. They only have a few women
taking care of them at these orphanages and those women can’t be
affectionate all of the time. So, show them a little bit of attention
and they are your best friend for the rest of the time you’re
there…they become your shadow.

HS: It comes across in footage that I saw.

They’re super sweet. But a lot of the adults were kind of over the
whole thing. They see us showing up with video cameras, and you know,
how many times have they seen video cameras, and nothing’s changed,
nothing’s helping. So I could tell that the adults in the area were
just like, ‘Get that out of my face.’ But the kids just love cameras.

HS: What else happens in the movie?

Basically, we go there and discover that not much has been the year
that has past. Only 6 percent of the rubble has been moved and the
place is still in a mess. But these small orphanages are functioning
smoothly and have a caring environment. We go to a tent city and see
how people are still living there, with seemingly no hope of ever
getting out. We see that the country still needs a lot of help. Even
though unlike the perspective in America, where people figure that a
lot of money has been sent to Haiti, that they should be fine, that
they should have figured it out, the actual people haven’t seen a lot
of the money. It’s hard to know where the money has gone to in
general but it hasn’t appeared to benefit the average person there at

I’m sure there are any number of people who have fattened their
pockets through that money, but the average person has not seen the
benefit of that money.

HS: So where to now with this project?

LakayPAM supports a few orphanages in Port au Prince. They also fund a
soccer program for a few hundred boys. For some of these boys, the
only square meal that they get in a day is at soccer practice. But
they want to continue to expand. Right now they have about four or
five hundred children that they aid through the program, but obviously
there is a whole country full of children that could use their help.

Their newest program is giving well-bred bulls to the farmers so they
can produce better cattle. The farmers have nothing really. So sort
of random things that you feel would necessarily have an impact, help

HS: What’s the plan for tomorrow night at MILK Studios?

We’re going to be showing the video here and at the same time they
will have all the pictures that Behati, who is a really good
photographer, took on the trip. Then we hope to have some famous
photographers auction off some of their work so that we can make the
most amount of money for the kids.

HS: Do you plan to go back?

Yes, we’d love to. Maybe early next year, we’ll see how things are
progressing down there.

HS: And, if kids want to send letters now is it too late?

Definitely not too late. They can be sent care of Wilhelmina. And
once we get a certain chunk of them, Cedrick will then take them down
and start the process all over again.

Photos By: Behati Prinsloo

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