July 30, 2009 02:00 PM

When Mariska Hargitay signed on to play Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999, little did she know just how much the role would change her life. Not only did it establish the 45-year-old mom-of-one as an Emmy Award-winning actress, it also opened her eyes to what she calls a “silenced epidemic of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in this country.” Not long after SVU began airing, Mariska found herself inundated with letters from crime victims who shared their stories of abuse — often for the first time.

Moved by what she read, Mariska began studying to become a crisis counselor herself and from that experience the Joyful Heart Foundation was born. Dedicated to educating and empowering survivors of abuse, Joyful Heart hosts week-long retreats for both victims and caregivers where creative healing techniques are learned and applied. The organization also offers free and open monthly events for survivors in their local communities and provides workshops in domestic violence shelters throughout the country. Writes Mariska,

“When people are abused and assaulted, it is like the doors to their souls slam shut. The goal of Joyful Heart is to let the light, and the life, back in — to banish the darkness and let the healing begin.”

The programs offered by Joyful Heart are funded by donations as well as by proceeds from the sale of various items available in the foundation’s Heartshop. For more ideas on how you can help, click here.

Together with husband Peter Hermann, Mariska is mom to 3-year-old August Miklos Friedrich.


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