Innocence Lost Foundation - Ava Vanderstarren & Fazineh Keita

Note - This is the first of two articles I will be posting on the Innocence Lost Foundation.

Those of us who are regulars at local fashion weeks have been watching Ava Vanderstarren walk the runway in many many shows.  She and I connected in a small way at events and through Facebook, but never really had a chance to sit and chat. Then one day I received an intriguing invitation to meet her and partner Fazineh Keita to hear about their new foundation - Innocence Lost.  I was, of course intrigued.

Over coffee at the Harrison Galleries, Ava and Fazineh shared about their passion to help former child soldiers find healing and a better life. The foundation was inspired by Fazineh's own story as a child soldier - something that will be shared in part 2 of this series, so be sure and check back.

For anyone taking this path, there are huge stumbling blocks.  Getting all the legal paper work done, a proper board in place, volunteers and support behind you, an architect to create the space and most importantly FUNDRAISING! The two have been working hard speaking everywhere they can to bring awareness, have volunteers making jewellery to be sold and set up a donation site.

I was utterly impressed. They had crossed their i's and dotted their t's. Innocence Lost in being built on a solid business foundation and I have no qualms in supporting their efforts.  So to begin this journey - I want to introduce you to Ava Vanderstarren through a Q and A about her life and this foundation. Then a little later, I will be offering the same on co-founder Fazineh. 

Enjoy! Don't forget to follow Innocence Lost Foundation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram - links at bottom. And be sure to pop by their website to see how you can become involved in bringing their vision from concept to reality.

= = = = =  

Where were you born, where did you grow
up? What were you like as a child/teen? 

I was born in Abbotsford and spent all of my childhood growing up in Chilliwack, BC. My family lived on the mountain, in Cultus Lake and now by the Chilliwack River so I've always been around nature. As a kid I was very hardworking in school. I always got good grades and focused on my assignments. Sometimes my teachers would give me time off because I worked so hard haha!

I was a very nice nerd I would say :)

I did have friends, only a few close ones, but I would get along with everyone in my classes. At home I was very close with my family and spent a lot of time outside and playing in the creek. As I grew up and went to high school things stayed pretty similar. I graduated with top grades and was one of my high school valedictorians.

Can you remember any stories from that time that highlight you would take this career path and found a charity?

I was always a very artistic person, very kind and caring. I chose to go into acting because I loved drama class and was in all of the school plays. We had many school clubs and I was a member of Girl Guides and traveled so my world view was pretty open. I always knew that I was very lucky to be born in Canada and live where I do. I don't think there was just one instance that shifted my perspective but a culmination of all of my experiences and upbringing.

You have been very visible in the Vancouver scene over the last few years. Please share some highlights of what you've been doing.

Thank-you, I've been modeling and acting since graduating school. I was in an episode of Supernatural and on a few TV commercials. I won best actress at the POV Film Festival for the short film "A Day with Sofia". For modeling I work for Arc'teryx, have done Vancouver Fashion Week for many seasons and work for many local designers and photographers. I hosted a night of VALT last season and have been doing public speaking and hosting. In 2013 I participated in the Miss BC Pageant and was crowned with that title. This really helped with propelling me to start our foundation. That year Fazineh and I founded Innocence Lost Foundation because my platform was rehabilitation of child soldiers.

How did you meet your co-founder Fazineh Keita and how did the idea to found Innocence Lost develop?

Fazineh and I met at Vancouver Film School. We both took the Acting for Film and TV program there in 2011. The foundation is inspired by his personal story and the experiences that he went through. He was a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war. I saw how these experiences affected him on a personal level and how he had to deal with what he went through on a daily basis. He's a very unique and inspiring person. Then when Miss BC happened we decided not to wait and to do something towards our goals of humanitarian work now instead of waiting for "someday" to come along.

What is the goal of this charity organization - now, 1 year, 5 years?

Our goal is to help child soldiers that have been rescued out of conflict by creating centers that provide long term rehabilitation care. We want to spread awareness about these issues. For countries that have been affected by war we want to provide them with resources and education to move forward and deal with traumas and to help rebuild.

Our first project is a community centre for Kabala, Sierra Leone, which is where Fazineh is from. We want to provide the community with a water well, medical clinic, community gardens, education, art therapy, sports programs and skills training. Down the road we want to build rehabilitation centers in many different countries and help rescue child soldiers. 

Talk about some of the steps you've had to go through to establish Innocence Lost and to begin to raise funds?

In the summer of 2013 we filed all the paperwork to become incorporated as a non-profit foundation in Canada. Once we had our status we took some time to create our logo and website and establish our goals. In 2014 we began working with some amazing architects (Laura & Patrick from M3a) who helped us design a site plan and 3D models of our Kabala community centre project. Now we are really working on pulling together our volunteers and working on all the different areas and ideas we have for fundraising.

What has proven most challenging?

Things have really been a step by step process and a big learning process, so we're always discovering what to do next. The fact that we've never done this before is both a challenge and the exciting part of it. I like to get things done, so for me I've had to learn that things take time and you can't rush the process, but instead you have to enjoy the journey. I would love to be in Africa right now, but I know there are steps to take to get there and you can't cut corners.

Can you share a high moment in this journey - something unexpected?

The support and generosity that we receive has been overwhelming! It's amazing how people come together and can unite for the cause. Every time we get excited about an accomplishment and a step closer to our goals is a high moment. Things seems to fall into place. Our volunteers are so wonderful, and we're so lucky to work with so many amazing individuals that each bring something to the table.

Winning Miss BC was also pretty unexpected for me and definitely a huge moment in my life.
Also every time we leave our architect's office after a meeting we have an energy and excitement that lasts all day :)

What are the many ways readers can support this charity?

They can visit our website to learn more and donate online: They can also spread the word on social media and connect with us. We'll have many fundraising events coming up down the road that people can attend. We have t shirts, merchandise and a jewelry line that has all profits going to the project. Also we are always looking for volunteers and new ideas so we welcome anyone and everyone to join us in helping out in any way.

Anything else you would like to share?

I want to remind people that it's so easy to get caught up in the day to day struggles of life, but that there are so many people around the world that are happy with much less than we have. So I would ask for everyone to be thankful and positive and remember that they are lucky and blessed. At the end of the day, image and material possessions don't matter but love and kindness do.