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Grateful Traveler: From The West Wing to a War Zone, One TV Star’s Humanitarian Journey

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Melissa Fitzgerald in Uganda - Photo credit: IMC

If you listen carefully, if you are open, sometimes you might find life taking you places you never dreamed of—and yet, when you get there, it feels strangely like home.

Such was the case with Melissa Fitzgerald, an actress on the hit show The West Wing.

She was comfortable. Happy. She had not one, but two, professional “families.”

The first, her fellow actors and crew from The West Wing; the other, the group of friends with whom she’d started Voices in Harmony, a non-profit organization that uses theater to work with at-risk teens.

In 2003, Melissa’s work life felt full and fulfilling, but her marriage was all but over. Like most people, this sent her into a downward spiral, a place she most definitely did not like being.

Melissa Fitzgerald - Winning West WingSomeone Melissa describes as “a wise friend” suggested she write down three things every night for which she was grateful. Her list looked like this: great friends, wonderful family, her health, a nice home, a car, food, running water, electricity, and the paper and pencil she used to make her list.

Based on this exercise, Melissa decided that what she wanted most was to help people who had no access to many of the things she’d written down. 

So she went on Oprah.com (she still laughs at this), linked up with every non-profit she could find, then volunteered with the first one that called her back.

Two weeks later, Melissa was on a plane headed for South Africa to work with the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care. On hiatus from her show, she had a very short window of time in which to make a difference. But when she returned from Africa, she was hooked.

Back home, Melissa turned her situation around and asked herself a most remarkable question: “What can I do now that I wouldn’t dare do if I were still married and had children?”

Her answer? “Volunteer in a war zone.”

Which is how she found herself in Northern Uganda.

Melissa Fitzgerald - Uganda - Photo credit: IMC“I went to Northern Uganda with the International Medical Corps to help with a nutrition program. War was still a reality and we had to go everywhere in a convoy. But I was so impressed by the work being done and by the hope, strength and resilience the Ugandans showed in spite of all the tragedy, that I came home more committed than ever.”

In 2007, Melissa took her American theater family—the actors, writers and directors who made up Voices for Harmony—and headed back to northern Uganda. Their mission? To use the power of the spoken word to help heal the wounds of war.

At an Internally Displaced Persons Camp, Melissa and her group chose 14 teens and asked them to share their stories. Working with the Voices in Harmony professionals, the kids crafted stories of longing, dislocation and hope. 

During Uganda’s war, school became an impossibility for much of the country’s children. But the overwhelming illiteracy rate in the camp left their audience with a high regard for the spoken word.

When it was for the teens to tell their stories, 1,000 people showed up. 

“We built a stage in the camp and had to do the play in the afternoon because there were no lights,” says Melissa.

And no amplification. No one seemed to mind. Melissa just told the kids to project their voices, a feat Pavarotti might have balked at. No matter. Everyone loved the stories. Everyone understood their bitter truth. Families ripped apart. Children abducted and forced into the rebel army to be brutalized and to brutalize in turn. How do you welcome them home? How do you make a place in your heart?

Melissa Fitzgerald - Uganda - Photo credit: IMCThe children asked these questions and the community answered with love. “It’s not easy,” says Melissa, “but everyone wants peace. Their capacity for forgiveness was both astonishing and humbling.”

Buoyed by the experience, Melissa and the Voices team just finished raising enough money to send the kids on tour to other refugee camps. On March 19, Rick Springfield is doing a benefit concert in Los Angeles to raise money for the group, voicesofuganda.org.

That family Melissa wanted? The one that comes complete with the proverbial house and picket fence? Like her acting career, it’s on hold. In 2003, Melissa would have never believed this was where her life was headed.

But courageous enough to put heartbreak aside and re-imagine her world, Melissa has created a new life for herself. One that has made Uganda and its people Melissa’s sole focus. And one might say, the focus of her soul.

By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.com. Photo credit(s): IMC

Related Links: International Medical Corps – IMC, Voices in Harmony, Voices of Uganda

The Grateful Traveler series is dedicated to stories about the transformative power of travel. Read more Grateful Traveler stories here.

You don’t have to go to a war zone to benefit the world through your travels. Find out more about Voluntourism and Responsible Travel.

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