by Jacqueline Romano
Since her debut on the runway at age 15 for Calvin Klein for the Spring/Summer of 2008, she has walked for Stella McCartney, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel, amongst many other high-end designers, and has appeared on the cover of many prestigious magazines. Although these are incredible accomplishments, Antonia Garrn may tell you that her most proud work doesn’t have to do with modeling at all.
At the same time that Garrn began her modeling career, she also started sponsoring young girls to get an education through the non-profit organization Plan International. After years of dedication, Plan International made Garrn an ambassador of their “Because I am a Girl” campaign, which strives to end the cycle of poverty and to empower marginalized girls. With an estimated 65 million girls around the world not attending school, Toni pushed her efforts further by creating her own Toni Garrn Foundation.
BFM: Can you give us some back story on why and how you came to start supporting Plan International and their campaign, “Because I Am a Girl”.
Toni: I had started sponsoring children of Plan International starting very young. I started when I was 16. One day, I wanted to build out that relationship a little more with them and I wanted to find out what they actually do for women’s rights and girls rights and how could I become more of a voice for them. So I sat down and a ton of research on other NGOs and Plan International seemed to be the most sustainable with their work. They don’t even open projects unless they know they can be self sustainable in the community and that really got to me. That’s why I chose them.
The fact that I wanted to help girls has always been the biggest factor. Plan International’s Because I Am a Girl is their amazing big campaign that helps in every country that they’re active in. The most important thing to me was to make sure young girls have access to a school around her, have the ability to learn how to read and write.
So, with Africa, I had already worked there before, been there before with my brother and just fell in love with it and I told Plan International that I’d love to go to different places in Africa and if they had any projects there that I’d love to support them. I’m sure I’ll help in other places too, but right now I’m just set on Africa. Girls need help everywhere in the world.
BFM: Well that’s amazing! Even just staying in one region and helping however you can there, is great!
Toni: Yes, it feels amazing. For me, I would try to help and stand for something and they have sponsor a child program, so I wouldn’t necessarily have to go, but for me the most loving part and most effective is actually going. The person who goes learns so much more about the cause than anyone can ever donate or could ever imagine.
I did a summer camp with forty girls and after talking to them and sharing experiences, dancing… yes, of course, they need donations, but really they need female role models and a little bit of a wake up call to see that it pays to be in school and we deserve to be in school. To be able to go there and connect our cultures is just as important as raising money.
BFM: So, you started sponsoring children at a young age. Was there a particular event or circumstance that inspired you to do this?
Toni: I was brought up in a well-off home and it was very clear that this was not the norm. That I was extremely lucky. Where I grew up there were a lot of homeless people around and it was always normal for my family to give back to them. When I made my own money, I talked to my mom about it and she said that I could afford to start my own charity if I wanted to. I said “that’s awesome! I’m going to do it.”
For people who really care and want to help, even if they don’t have a lot of money, it’s just really nice to connect with people in other parts of the world, to get letters from that after you’ve helped to hear how they’re doing… Plan International is just a really great organization so I’m a huge supporter of them.
BFM: Yes, I’m a big supporter of education and do a lot of mentorship where I live. Education really is a key to prevention or just self growth and self love. When you go to other parts of the world, or even here in the U.S. and work with children who aren’t as fortunate as you were to have access to a good education, you really see how much of an impact it can have on a person.
Toni: 100%. My dad always made me stay in school, even after I started my career at 14. Because of that, I can travel by myself since I speak multiple languages, I understand people better. Just to have those basic skills even, helped me a lot and opened up many doors for me. I see now how lucky I was.
BFM: At what point when were working with Plan International, did you decide to focus more of your efforts on helping girls specifically by starting your own foundation?
Toni: I always supported girls. Even if it was something I privately donated to, but I always did my work around the Because I Am a Girl campaign. My foundation simply came along because I was in Zimbabwe last year and I wanted to donate directly.
I fell in love with like 40 girls and I wanted to support exactly them and I wanted to help their three schools. Since Plan International is such a huge NGO, starting the Toni Garrn Foundation was an easier, more direct way for donors, if they trust me, they’ll know for sure that their money is definitely going to go there. I can eventually start different projects in different locations under my foundation. This is just the start for me to help a lot of places.
BFM: I was reading that there were barriers keeping girls from getting a proper education in Zimbabwe. Can you talk about that?
Toni: Mainly, it’s the cultural differences. There are still a lot of parents who are scared for their daughter to go to school, but the main issue is infrastructure. The houses are too far a part from each other. There are kids who walk 10 kilometers everyday to get to school. They don’t have the proper school uniform or shoes either. As an only girl in a family there, they have to get up at 4AM and walk 5 kilometers to get water and cook breakfast for their whole family and then walk that 10 kilometers to school. That whole couple of hours in the morning is exhausting. It’s also just dangerous, if they’re walking home in the dark.
The school facilities are another issue. Sometimes, there are no girls’ toilets so when the girls get their periods they just won’t go to school because they feel gross. So what I’m doing in my program is building girls’ toilet facilities, as well as housing for girls to live next to the school. The house is on the same grounds as the school and they live there Monday through Friday. That is where the money is going for this project when people donate to the Toni Garrn Foundation.
BFM: And that’s really an idea you could only think of by going there and seeing where funds could be most impactful. When you’re working with these girls, how do you use your career, because you’ve been such a hard worker from a young age, a businesswoman and a philanthropist, to motivate the girls you work with?
Toni: I feel like I grew up in a bubble, so I feel stupid going and talking to these girls about my life because they’re as young as I was and are raising their entire family. They could be 8-years-old raising their 2-year-old siblings. Maybe their dad died and their mom is sick and can’t walk, yet these girls are still smiling. So after stories like that, I don’t know what I can tell them. I just talk about myself and tell them how normal it is to go to school in other countries, that the governments and people push for it.
Girls deserve it, just as much as boys do. I just talk to them. That’s all they really want. I could talk to a girl about going through puberty and what she likes and what she wants most in life. We talk about life and everything always would come back to education. They’d say, “I wish I had electricity at night so I could read and study,” or a girl would hit puberty and only has one t-shirt so she doesn’t go to school because she feels uncomfortable with her cleavage sticking out. Simple things like that. They’re all so driven, so smart. They’re the most powerful energetic women I’ve ever met. All they need is to get that pen to write.
BFM: What you’re doing is amazing. I’m so grateful for people like you who are going out there a truly making serious effort to make a difference.
Toni: We all have to start somewhere and I am completely whole-hearted in supporting this. But if you can help right where you are, that is amazing. There are enough people around the world who would love a great education but can’t afford it. Even people close to you may not be able to get a proper education. Look around you a little bit.
Visit www.tonigarrnfoundation.org to see how you can volunteer or donate to the Toni Garrn Foundation and aid in supporting girls education in Zimbabwe.