Worldwide Wendie

Like free Oscar frocks and great tables at hot restaurants, globe-trotting ranks as one of the perks of stardom. But while many well-known actors roam the world for movie shoots and film festivals, Just Shoot Me’s Wendie Malick packs her bags for an entirely different reason: to practice hands-on international activism in such far-flung places as Central Africa and Tijuana.

It started 10 years ago, when a friend told Malick about the need for volunteers to build houses for the poor in Tijuana. She and a group of friends have spent time there every year since, and in 1994 they decided to make their annual pilgrimage over the Thanksgiving holiday. Carving turkey? Try lifting and pouring concrete, which Malick says has its own rewards. “It’s hard, but I love it because you don’t have to be skilled. You just have to bust your butt. It’s really satisfying.” Until recently, the collective worked all day, then camped out at night. “It could be windy, and we were cooking in a tent that could go over at any moment,” says Malick. “It was insane.” Now the group has moved up to living in bunkhouses, where they feast on burritos on Thanksgiving.

Last year Malick and about 40 friends–the self-proclaimed Maverick Building Squad–built an addition to the City of Angels orphanage for children of prostitutes and prisoners (where they had constructed a bathhouse the year before). They also brought donated computers and installed an e-mail system so that donors can be alerted to what’s needed at the orphanage, from books to clothing.

The children have benefited, but so has Malick–and in more ways than one. It was in Mexico, on her first charitable visit, that she met her future husband, Richard Erickson, a fellow volunteer who invited Malick to motorcycle through Central Africa the following summer. “The idea was that we would have this great adventure, then leave the bikes for the nurses at this little medical center he knew about, because they can’t use cars in the rainy season,” she says.

For Malick, that trip marked the start of another international volunteer project. She has returned three times to Aungba, a small village in Central Africa. (As a child, her husband lived in Aungba for six years with his missionary parents; in 1988 he spent a year there building a medical center.)

Last summer the couple traveled there for the dedication of the center’s new surgical wing, which they had financed. “It’s a very remote part of Congo. All the people from all the surrounding villages come to this place for medical help,” says Malick. “They were desperate for more room.”

On each visit, Malick and Erickson meet with teachers and students in the local school to determine what could make a difference–big or small–in the lives of the young villagers. “The needs run from a piano for the choir to a basketball, because they’ve had this hoop for years but no ball,” Malick says. To raise contributions for the center and other relief projects in Africa and Mexico, Malick and Erickson set up a fund in 1997 called A Drop in the Bucket.

Today the funds they’ve collected constitute more than a drop, and Malick’s enthusiasm continues to grow. “When you look at a map and realize that you have friends in every quadrant of this giant world,” she says, “it just helps you feel like part of the great picture.”

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