From the October 2015 issue of The Rotarian
From the runways of Paris to the catwalks of Milan, from the pages of Sports Illustrated to the cover of Vogue, Brazil’s Isabeli Fontana is one of the most recognizable figures in the world of high fashion. Two years ago, the supermodel became a super role model for the eradication of polio when she accepted Rotary’s invitation to become a polio ambassador. Since then, two other Brazilian celebrities – soccer player Alexandre Pato and singer Ivete Sangalo – have joined Rotary’s roster of ambassadors.
Fontana, a mother of two, began to take a special interest in polio eradication in 2011, when she brought her younger son to receive oral polio vaccine drops from the Brazilian Minister of Health as part of the country’s national immunization campaign. Since then, she has helped to raise awareness by participating in Rotary’s “This Close” campaign, and by posing for photos in an End Polio Now T-shirt custom designed by Brazil fashion brand Tufi Duek. She was part of the World’s Biggest Commercial and appeared in the thank-you video that concluded that campaign. Fontana has also used her personal social media channels to promote polio eradication efforts and immunization events.
In March, Fontana traveled to India on a three-day goodwill mission in which she assisted health workers and other volunteers with vaccinations, talked to schoolchildren about the importance of hygiene, visited the polio rehabilitation ward at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi, and met with officials from UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
Through trips like Fontana’s, Rotary polio ambassadors provide moral support to health workers and volunteers, raise awareness of the eradication effort, and bring visibility to Rotary and its partners. Fontana’s visit was covered by media outlets throughout India and internationally, and garnered widespread attention through social media. It also brought polio eradication work to the attention of readers of glamour publications and followers of the fashion industry – an audience that otherwise might not be aware of Rotary’s work.
In June, Fontana spoke at the Rotary International Convention in her home country, and found time to chat with The Rotarian about her experiences in India.
THE ROTARIAN: You’ve done a lot of work in Brazil as a Rotary polio ambassador. What made you decide to go to India to help with the immunization effort there?
FONTANA: I want to do my best to change the world so we can all be healthier – so all children have the chance to stay healthy and play and be happy.
TR: What impressed you about India during your visit?
FONTANA: The energy was spectacular. It was so moving to be there and see how much faith the people have. The fact that it was possible to end polio there shows that the fight is not in vain. India is a good example to all Rotarians that it is possible to achieve what we’re fighting for.
TR: How did it feel to give the vaccine to the children you met there?
FONTANA: I was in tears to see all these kids. It was incredible. One after another after another. It means a lot to me, because I am a mother. One mother sat down while I gave the drops to her child and then she wouldn’t leave. She wanted to know if there were other vaccines. I loved that, because it showed how concerned she was.
TR: Were you able to connect with the polio workers as well?
FONTANA: Yes. It was an honor to meet the health workers who are bringing awareness to every community and every house. It was amazing to see. Because of them, India is polio-free.
TR: How did the health workers respond to seeing you helping with the immunization effort?
FONTANA: They were very welcoming. In my career, some people look at me in a certain way because I work for luxury companies. In India, it was different. They were looking at me with big open hearts, and that touched my heart.
TR: Besides helping with vaccinations, what else did you do in India?
FONTANA: We did little videos, little scenes of the kids – they were so cute. We went to a school and I talked with the children about the importance of cleaning their hands and trying to stay healthy.
TR: You also visited St. Stephen’s hospital.
FONTANA: The hospital – that was very tough. It’s tough to see the paralysis, to see the effects of the disease. It’s so different from when you are giving the vaccine, when you are helping to prevent it. It was an education for me. This is really important, and we cannot close our eyes to it.
TR: Do you have any plans to participate in another immunization effort?
FONTANA: I would love to. I would like to go to Africa. But I would definitely like more time there. In the three days in India, we couldn’t do all the things we wanted. We were going from one place to the other to the other, we were working 19 hours a day, and we barely had time to eat. But it was the best experience of my life. I think it helped me, more than anything else, to see that I am very lucky. I’m healthy and I can work and I have an opportunity to go to these countries and help.