Ben Affleck took center stage at the Starkey Hearing Foundation awards gala in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sunday night. The actor-director was honored at the annual star-studded charity gala for his longtime humanitarian work with Eastern Congo Initiative.
Affleck tells PEOPLE that working with the Congolese people has been “one of the greatest, most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.” (See more in his Q&A below.)
The Starkey Hearing Foundation, which brings hearing aids to people in need in the U.S. and around the world, raises millions of dollars with the annual event, where this year Steven Tyler and Darius Rucker performed.
In 2009, Affleck founded ECI, a grant-making and advocacy organization focused on investing in and working with the people of eastern Congo. One of the group’s many projects has been partnering with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to bring life-changing hearing aids to people in the war-torn area.
Before the event, the father of three answered some questions for PEOPLE about his work in Congo:
You visited Congo for the 10th time recently. Who were some of the most memorable people you met on that trip?
Last month, I spent an afternoon with a group of women and girls in Goma who have survived horrific sexual violence. The youngest was just seven. It’s stunning and unconscionable. But in the face of stigma and intimidation, these women and girls are working with our longtime local partner DFJ [Dynamique des Femmes Juristes, which advocates for women’s rights] to bring about true justice. To stand up in court, not only on behalf of themselves, but their sisters, their daughters, their communities… You spend time with these women and girls — you hear their stories, and words like courage take new meaning.
What do you tell your kids [Violet, 11, Seraphina, 8, and Samuel, 5] about your trips to Congo? How do you get them to relate to the people you’re helping and to the work you’re doing?
Absolutely! I think helping my children expand their consciousness of other cultures, struggles, and issues outside of their own and outside of our country is one of the most important responsibilities I have as a parent and as a citizen – now more than ever. With each trip I take, I always try to keep in mind that I not only have a chance to encourage positive change in Congo when I go, but to also raise a level of appreciation, awareness, empathy and reciprocity from within my own home. For their part, my kids are amazing – always asking a million questions, wanting to see photos and hear stories. I can’t wait for them to be old enough to experience Congo for themselves.
What makes you most hopeful about the country and the work you’re doing there?
More than anything, it’s the hard work and commitment of the Congolese people to improve their country. Seeing the passion and capability of so many wishing to bring about a better future for their children and communities is one of the greatest, most awe-inspiring experiences of my life thus far. I hold Eastern Congo Initiative’s work in facilitating the ascendency of Congo’s specialty coffee into the global market as a particular joy of mine – it’s been incredible to see what the dedication of these farmers, their ingenious cooperatives and socially conscious investment from Starbucks can do to transform the region.
You and Eastern Congo Initiative have partnered with the Starkey Hearing Foundation for years – why is giving people access to hearing aids so important? Have you met anyone helped by the hearing aids?
HEAL is a Congolese-run hospital in the heart of Goma, and we’ve supported their efforts to not only provide treatment, but to train new healthcare workers to help scale that care to more than 42,000 women and children. HEAL is also a vital partner of Starkey’s hearing missions to Congo, which has given the gift of hearing to over 1300 patients, and provided consultations and support for hundreds more. It’s the delight of a lifetime to be with someone when they hear for the first time. The Starkey Hearing Foundation are angels.
Affleck also chronicled his recent trip on Instagram:
Just got home from a listening and learning trip throughout rural eastern Congo. Seven years ago, I founded @EasternCongo Initiative (www.easterncongo.org), a grant making and advocacy organization, focused on investing directly in the Congolese people. I feel beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to again return to Congo, seeing friends, visiting with longtime grantees, and some of our newest partners. Hard to believe this was my tenth trip to such an amazing place, a country I have fallen in love with. During my week-long visit, I visited several coffee communities and many of our community-based partners in the field. I also saw the positive impact Starbucks’ investment in the coffee sector is making to thousands of families along Lake Kivu. Additionally, I spent an afternoon with women and girls, one as young as 7, who have survived horrific sexual violence. Thanks to the extraordinary work of our long-time grantee La Dynamique des Femmes Jurists (http://www.dfj-rdc.org), these brave women and girls are being provided judicial services to bring their cases to court, receive medical support and psychological counseling. It was also stunning to trek into Virunga – the African continent’s very first National Park – to witness a family of Mountain Gorillas in the wild, alongside the inimitable Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode and the park’s valiant rangers. (www.virunga.org) I am hopeful that they will continue to win the fight against the ongoing threats of oil exploration and violence towards the gorillas in this precious place. Every time I visit, I leave even more inspired there will be a brighter and more peaceful future for the Congolese. The challenges are real, and the road is long, but the Congolese are the hardest working and most hopeful people I know. We often speak of heroes – I count these among the many. It’s the honor of a lifetime to support Congo. My heart will forever be there with them.
Affleck has also testified before Congress four times to advocate for U.S. and international engagement in Congo.