Jennifer Garner has endeared herself to American audiences in shows like Felicity and Alias, and movies like 13 Going on 30 and Juno. But for the past three and half years, Garner has been working with Save the Children, a non-profit group that works to better the lives of children living in poverty in the U.S. and abroad. Through her work, Garner — mother to daughters Violet and Seraphina — is attempting to address a startling reality: One in four children grow up in poverty in the rural U.S.
After visiting D.C. earlier this month to stump for early childhood education and improved access to child care, Garner made a pit stop in New York to represent Save the Children and link up with Frigidaire in its efforts to teach kids about fresh foods.
We caught up with her there to find out more about her work with this amazing charity.
What drew you to Save the Children?
I really wanted to work with a program that was focused on kids in the rural United States. One in 4 kids in rural America is growing up in poverty, and they don’t have a voice, they can’t march on Washington, they can’t get up and talk about how unfair it is. So, Save the Children was by far the most impressive of organizations geared toward these kids.
You focus on poverty and education for children. Why are those issues so close to your heart?
I wanted to focus my energies on something that I knew a little bit from the heart and that I was passionate about. Having grown up in West Virginia, 15 minutes in any direction there were kids growing up in these conditions, where they didn’t have books and they didn’t have access to healthy fruits and vegetables, even though were so close to a town where we did. And it’s just about leveling the playing field.
Did you have any specific experiences about growing up that come to mind?
Yes, I had several experience. There were kids in my elementary school who started out behind and who were held back in first grade and held back in second grade and then, I don’t know what happened to them after that. And I think about those kids, and I think, “Gosh, if they had had someone focusing on their early childhood education, from ages 0 to 5, they could have started kindergarten with both feet planted, instead of being behind before they ever found out where their cubby was.
Save the Children is a worldwide organization, yet your focus seems to be on helping America families in particular. Why is that so important to you?
There are problems all over the world, and there’s so much need in the world, and I’m so happy that people are invested in all different causes, and you know, my husband [Ben Affleck] has the Eastern Congo Initiative he’s so, so busy with and believes so wholeheartedly in helping people [there], and I applaud him. But I also see the need in our own country — when we’re talking about one out of four children growing up in poverty, higher obesity rates, one book for every 300 kids in these communities! If you put a book in these kids’ hands, they do not even know what to do with it. They’ve never been read to. That is happening in our own country. And we need to stand up, take notice around us, and we need to do something about it.
Is there a particular child or mother you’ve met along the way whose situation resonated with you?
So many! You meet these beautiful kids and see their faces light up when the Save The Children coordinator shows up at their house. In West Virginia this little 2-year-old was in a trailer with nothing going on, not a book on the shelves, not a toy to play with. Nothing but a television. And when the STC coordinator showed up with puzzles and books and games and ingredients to make Play-Doh, and she got her hands messy, and suddenly, there were vocabulary words that she didn’t know she was learning, because she was playing.
Can you talk about your recent work with Save the Children?
I was in D.C. recently introducing a bill with Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MN) that would ensure one year of pre-K. By the time you’re 4 years old, if you’re growing up in poverty, you’re a year and a half behind. Those first five years are so critical, and it’s hard to imagine, because you think, “What are you really learning?” But what you’re doing is you’re setting your brain up to learn how to learn. And that’s why we’ve got to get to kids earlier, younger, and better. Higher quality, it has to happen.
How did you feel about your experience in Washington?
I’m always amazed by how engaged our lawmakers are on issues with children. They are ready to go to bat, they are ready to fight. Everything is an uphill battle in Washington. I don’t know how they do it; it must just be so frustrating for all of them to work on something they believe in. But Senator Casey and Senator Mikulski really impressed me with their knowledge, commitment, passion, and their leadership.
What do you get out of the work you do with Save the Children?
The more that I do for kids in America, the more I feel like there is to do and the more I want to do it. It is a snowball. Because you see that maybe you could have a little bit of an effect, and maybe you could make a little bit of difference, but you have to put your shoulder into it, and you have to give it your time and energy. I feel that I’m just at the very, very beginning of what I hope to do.
One more really important question: What’s your favorite dessert?
Anything chocolate! Ice cream doesn’t hurt.
If you’d like to help Save the Children, you can do so in a few ways. Any time you use the social media guide app Gowalla to check in at your local Farmer’s Market, Frigidaire will donate $1 to Save the Children, as part of its $500,000 commitment to the cause. You can also commit to eating fresh this summer, and Frigidaire will donate $1 to Save the Children’s U.S. Programs.