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NORTH KINGSTOWN—After returning from Cambodia in the early 2000s and adopting their two daughters, Natalie and Steve Coletta witnessed first-hand the difficult circumstances with which families in the Southeast Asian country confront daily. Looking to help out in some way, the North Kingstown residents founded Hearts That Help in 2003, an initiative by which local organizations and individuals sew valentine hearts to sell and raise money for families in Cambodia.
“When we went to Cambodia, we were exposed to extreme poverty for the first time in our lives,” said Natalie. “We knew as part of our parenting, we wanted our children to understand not only their birthplace, but what it means to give things to people who need it much more than we do.”
This Saturday, Hearts That Help will be selling its valentines a various locations throughout the state, particularly at the Coastal Grower’s Market in Lafayette Mill in North Kingstown, as well as at Lina Piccolina on Main St. in East Greenwich.
The inspiration for the program came from the minds of Coletta’s two adopted daughters, Chantrea and Sokeara, who when asked by their parents what they could do to help out, said that they wanted to make valentines.
“In that first year, we stitched [the valentines] and unfolded a card table in front of Ryan’s in Wickford to sell them,” said Coletta. “Then we realized that people really loved the idea.”
“We have taken a couple of years off because I work full time, but when we do it, we have just incredible support in terms of people who feel the same way we do, a lot of people stitching, and tons of workshops,” she continued. “And we have hundreds of hearts.”
Coletta stated that all the proceeds from the elaborately sewn valentines go to the Angkor Hospital for Children and The Lake Clinic in Cambodia, organizations which provide free medical care and assistance to impoverished families there. The Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Foundation will also receive funding as a new partner. The organization is dedicated to providing education to girls in Cambodia.
“Their first executive director, Jon Morgan, is from North Providence, and we loved their mission,” said Coletta. “We started sending money their way, and [the hospital] has done incredible work in Cambodia.”
Natalie and Steve wholly understand the myriad issues that Cambodians, particularly children and girls, face in a country which has struggled to recover from the genocides committed by the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s. Social injustices such as sex trafficking persist, and youth have little exposure to formal education, according to Coletta.
“They killed everyone who was intelligent and educated, and crippled the country,” said Coletta. “It has been extremely difficult for people to have the knowledge and organization to get past this. Everything from education to art was devastated by [the Khmer Rouge].”
By engaging in the artistic process and generating a product which will ultimately improve the lives of those in Cambodia who are living in extreme poverty, Coletta hopes that residents here gain a greater appreciation for the lives that they lead here, and the circumstances many in countries such as Cambodia throughout the globe face every day.
“We are creating a transformative notion of what it means to be loving,” said Coletta. “We believe in that. This is not just about giving someone a card, but transforming the deepest concerns we have in the world.”
The Coletta family further finds that their initiative brings locals closer together, creating mementos which will benefit the greater global community through the funds their sale generates. One daughter, for example who attends the Quest Montessori School in Narragansett, has gotten her entire school to join and participate in sewing valentines for Heart That Helps.
“An amazing part of this is that we build community around it,” said Coletta.
Each valentine heart will be sold for between $10 to $20 at the following locations this Saturday, Feb. 8 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.: Coastal Grower’s Market, Rte. 102, North Kingstown, Lina Piccolina, 58 Main St., East Greenwich, and The Peaceable Kingdom, 116 Ives St., Providence.
For more information or to donate to the Hearts That Help initiative, visit their website at www.heartsthathelp.org.