February 27, 2012 12:00 PM

The girl in the simple white dress spoke softly, barely louder than a whisper. Her name was Francoise, and she had come to quietly tell the story of how she’d been kidnapped on the way to school by the militia, held captive for four years and forced into sexual slavery. By the 16-year-old’s side sat Ben Affleck, who had traveled to a rehabilitation center for abducted children to listen, learn and find a way to help. “She was somebody’s child, somebody’s sister and someone who had barely grown up,” says Affleck, 39. “She had been swept into this brutal environment and survived horrible abuse. Some don’t.”

Françoise now has a chance for a better life, and Affleck’s mission is to offer that chance to more people in eastern Congo-a Central African region destroyed by a civil war that has left more than 3.5 million people dead. In 2010 Affleck founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, which has raised a multimillion-dollar fund to support the local people in an area devastated by food shortages, inadequate health care and an epidemic of sexual violence. “I want to do something more with my life than just make movies and try to make money,” explains Affleck, dad to Violet, 6, and Seraphina, 3, with his wife, Jennifer Garner, 39 (who’s now expecting their third child). “I wanted to give back and do something that was important to me in other ways and would serve as an example to my kids.” While he doesn’t go into details about his travels with his girls, he says, “I tell them it’s important to be involved in the world in ways that help others and not just yourself.”

It’s a lesson he learned from his mom, Chris Affleck, a former sixth-grade teacher whom he brought along on this, his eighth trip to the region, in January. “The vast majority of people have virtually nothing,” says the actor. “No bed to sleep on. Kids as young as 8 are made into soldiers. It’s incredibly brutal.” Yet he finds signs of hope, especially in the spirit of the children. “You see kids who have been child soldiers, once forced to kill people, now walking 10 miles to school to learn a trade,” he says. In some classrooms where 60 kids sit two to each desk, “every hand goes up when a teacher asks a question,” he marvels. “They all say, ‘Me, Me, Me.’ It’s blown me away.”

Their faces and their stories will stay with him long after he has returned home. “They have so little and are working as hard as they can to make their lives better,” Affleck says. “That’s inspiring.”

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