–Photo by Jason Schmidt

Monica Zwirner, the New York handbag designer and mom-of-three has a passion: helping in Haiti. Zwirner is on the board of Artists for Haiti, a non-profit founded in 2011 by her husband, gallerist David Zwirner, and Ben Stiller. They spearheaded an art auction that raised more than $13.7 million for education and family health initiatives in the devastated region. Her company, MZ Wallace, designed a bag specifically for the charity, and just sent another check for $30,000. We sat down with Zwirner to learn more about her inspiring work.
StrollerTraffic: Tell us about Artists in Haiti. How did you become involved?
Monica Zwirner: Ben Stiller approached my husband, David, to help raise money after the January 12, 2010 quake. I wanted to do something, too. We all did. David and I decided we needed to take a firsthand look. We arrived in Haiti almost one year after the anniversary of the quake. It was really like pictures of war zones. It was so devastated. There was so much dust. Not a tree. We looked at each other and immediately thought yes, let’s get involved.
ST: Who founded Artists in Haiti?
MZ: Ben already had his own non-profit organization, the Stiller Foundation, doing great work in Haiti—even before the quake. Immediately after the quake, he came to David with the idea of doing an art auction that could raise significant funds fast. So Artists for Haiti became a stand-alone charity, able to give out grants from all the money raised at the auction.
ST: Have you been back to Haiti?
MZ: We’ve been down a few times and it’s encouraging and rewarding to see how the grants have been used. The initial work was on the ground, and a lot was accomplished. People had gone into makeshift homes. Kids are back in school. Families are receiving medical care.
ST: What was it like being there? It must have been so emotional.
MZ: Every mother is a mother and every child is a child and everyone is the same. When you see it, and you know they are living on $3 a day if they are lucky—probably $2 a day—it is unthinkable. But, the kids are playing in the streets. They find a piece of rope and kids are doing what kids do.
ST: Wow. Talk about perspective. When did you realize you could make a difference?
MZ: One often thinks, I have to do something huge. My designing bags to sell for the cause was modest. And what David and Ben could do was huge. But when you give even $10 you are actually making a big difference. If you give $1, it helps.
ST: That’s such an inspiring way of looking at it. Tell us about the auction in New York. $13.7 million is an incredible accomplishment.
MZ: It was organized in partnership with Christie’s, the auction house in New York. Christie’s waived its own fees so that 100 per cent of all the money raised went directly to Haiti. David approached many artists, nationally and internationally. He traveled to Europe to show artists what is going on in Haiti, and how badly help was needed. The selected artists who exhibit at his gallery, and others who are represented by other galleries, were so generous. Twenty-six artists gave a total of 27 works, since Raymond Pettibon gave two paintings, and it’s because of their generosity that $13.7 million was raised.
ST: And are there other charities with whom you’ve worked to help in Haiti?
MZ: Two in particular were quite amazing. One is the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP). They are conducting the largest scholarship education program in the country. They find the absolute poorest kids, living in the hills, and educate them. As part of the program, the kids have to give back. The biggest problem in Haiti is brain drain. With education, they leave. But through this program, they promise to stay and help. One boy told me he grew up in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood. He spent 3 hours walking to school every day and in the middle of talking he just started crying. He was studying to be an engineer and he wanted to stay in Haiti and to help people.  It was one of those moments when you realize what education means. Being in Haiti with our kids, we all realized how much we take for granted.
The other organization is Path to a Better Life, a micro finance institution founded in the 1990s for the poorest women with kids. Almost 50 per cent of Haitian households are headed by single women. Path to a Better Life educates them in an 18-month program. They go into the bush and find women who live in homes with no electricity, or water and they lift them out of poverty by giving them an opportunity to sell something, or to raise cattle or a pig. We saw different phases of this and it’s amazing what happens. By the end of a program one woman was breeding pigs, and selling them. Her two little girls finally had clothing and food. She had a simple shack. She told us, I’m doing so well I’m going to build a bigger house!

ST: That is so inspiring.
MZ: It is. I came back and said to Lucy, who’s my business partner at MZ Wallace, that this is so unbelievable and we have to do something. We designed a special bag with Raymond Pettibon’s great lettering for the Artists for Haiti logo. We did a simple black and sequin tote bag we thought would appeal to American women, with 100 percent of proceeds going to Artists for Haiti.
ST: How can other moms help?
MZ: Don’t be overwhelmed by the loftiness of it. Keep it local. Become involved where you are able. And teach by example. If your kids see you do something little and meaningful, that passes on. When we came back from Haiti, our daughter volunteered at The Robin Hood Foundation, a huge charity that is doing very local but incredible work. She said to me, “You can’t believe what is going on in New York. There are people here who don’t have enough money to buy food and they are living right next to us.” You want your kids to be compassionate and to do something with that compassion. That’s a role as mothers we can hopefully pass on to our children.
ST: Amen to that.