Natalia Vodianova – Winning hearts and minds

Russian supermodel, philanthropist and mother of three, Natalia Vodianova, 31, founded the Naked Heart Foundation in 2004, following the Beslan massacre. She tells Selma Day about the charity’s mission to ensure every child has a happy, fulfilling childhood and how it is working to tackle the stigma of disability in Russia

Natalia Vodianova has appeared on the covers of hundreds of magazines and has been the face of Guerlain, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, L’Oreal, Chanel and Calvin Klein, among others. Today, almost all of her work is closely linked to her charity, the Naked Heart Foundation.
It was the Beslan school siege in 2004 – when Chechen militants took more than 1,000 hostages at a school, resulting in the deaths of 334 people including 186 children – that motivated Natalia to set up the foundation.
Desperate to do something to help, she came up with a simple idea: if the young survivors could be distracted by play for at least five minutes each day, it would help them to heal. Providing them with safe outdoor play facilities would redefine their city landscape and act as a form of therapy.
Having grown up in poverty in urban Russia, and become a mother herself, Natalia understood the importance of play and the devastating consequences of being deprived of such a basic necessity. It is through play, she believes, that children learn to engage with the world around them at a very early age and become more confident and resilient.
“Play is the way a child discovers himself, the world around him, different emotions that go hand in hand with the first socializing experience, and learns to cope with those emotions in a healthy and constructive way,” she says.
“Just remember yourself as a child – play is the best thing in the world, isn’t it? And, most importantly, it is a wonderful way for children to forget about whatever difficulties they might face at home and to be just a child.”
Following the Beslan tragedy, Natalia decided that other children in Russia could benefit from her idea – especially those living in areas where the authorities did not provide playgrounds and families with children accounted for most of the poor.
The Naked Heart Foundation was set up in 2004, and in 2006 it completed its first play park, five minutes from where Natalia grew up in Nizhny Novgorod (formerly known as Gorky). In 2009 – 40 play parks and 30 Russian cities later – Natalia fulfilled her dream of giving the children of Beslan their very own Naked Heart play park. The target is to build a total of 500 play parks all over Russia.
Natalia’s early life was spent supporting her single mother by helping her to run a fruit and vegetable stall to provide for the family and looking after her autistic sister who also has cerebral palsy. Having had nowhere safe to take her sister for daily walks, and having experienced the stigma attached to the disabled and underprivileged in Russia, she became determined to help provide facilities that would also cater for children of all abilities.
She says of her experience: “It obviously made me stronger, which helps to do the amount of work that we do at the Naked Heart Foundation. But it also made me acutely aware of all the problems a poor family with a disabled child can face. I guess my first-hand experience gives me the drive to make sure others have different childhoods and get the support they need.”
Struck by the contrast between her sister’s upbringing in a loving family home, and the lives of the children she met on her visits to orphanages, children’s hospitals and rehabilitation centres, Natalia started to think about what more she could do to help.
The Naked Heart Foundation team studied the experience of countries where there were no children’s homes or orphanages for disabled children, and sought the advice of leading Russian specialists. As a result, in 2011, it launched its Every Child Deserves a Family programme.
The foundation believes that children flourish in a caring and loving environment, and aims to help children stay with their families rather than being placed in orphanages.
Since March 2011, the Naked Heart Foundation has financed dozens of projects across Russia. These include: a family support centre in Nizhny Novgorod, which supports families raising children with a range of disorders, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down’s Syndrome; the first ever lekotek, or play library, set up in the Tula region; ongoing sponsorship of the publishing and legal departments of the Centre for Curative Pedagogics (CCP) in Moscow; and summer and autumn camps for children with special needs and their parents all over the country.
In addition, the charity actively campaigns for the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Having started out as a one-man team in 2006, the organization now comprises eight employees in the Russian Federation and three employees working internationally on fundraising and communications. Natalia and a small team of trustees are actively involved in fundraising and the day-to-day running of the organization, which now has operations in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Paris and London.
This year saw the opening of the Naked Heart Foundation’s 100th site in Natalia’s hometown of Nizhny Novgorod and the fourth Love Ball – a gala event designed to raise money for the charity. This year’s ball, hosted by Prince Albert and Princess Charlene, took place in Monaco and raised around €3.2 million. Previous events have taken place in Paris, Moscow and London. The latter was a celebration of art, curated by Dinos Chapman, with guests including Kate Moss, Stella McCartney, Jade Jagger, Mario Testino and Joely Richardson. In total these events have raised a staggering €20 million.
“This year has been a very important year for the Naked Heart Foundation,” says Natalia, who now lives in Paris with her three children (Lucas, Neva and Viktor, by her former husband Justin Portman) and her partner Antoine Arnault, son of Bernard Arnault, founder of the conglomerate of luxury brands LVMH.
“We’re currently running a big training programme for schoolteachers in order to train them to work with children with autism. Until now, those children were largely excluded from the education system simply because teachers didn’t know what to do with them and how to organize their learning environment. Now, hopefully, the project will dramatically increase the chances of children with autism to get education and socialize with their peers.
“We are passionately campaigning for making Russia an inclusive society, welcoming people with special needs and disabilities. And this is something that really needs addressing. The Soviet Union left Russia with thousands of state care homes for disabled people, where they would be locked up for their entire lives, out of sight of the wider society”.
Natalia would like Russia to not only acknowledge that there are people with special needs, but welcome them. “This is also why almost all our play parks across the country are inclusive,” she says. “I believe we can all become kinder by stretching out a hand to someone weaker or more vulnerable than ourselves.”