'Faces of Kibera' Photo Gallery

Caring Rooney Mara

Once reluctant to pursue the career that made her older sister, Kate Mara, a movie star, actress Rooney Mara never hesitated to follow a calling that often takes her 7,337 miles from her native Bedford.

In just her early 20s, Rooney Mara is the founder of a charity that benefits young orphans in Kibera, an African slum of about 1 million people living in 1 square mile of Nairobi, Kenya. And through Sunday, her online auction of sports- and entertainment-themed rarities will raise thousands more dollars to help build and support a facility on land she bought for Faces of Kibera.

”I went there, one of the last times I was there, in my pigtails, and bought 6 acres of land,“ she says with a wide smile. ”It was crazy.“

It’s a passion for the Fox Lane High School alumna, born Patricia Rooney Mara, but one she admits can be difficult to sustain with her growing silver-screen success.

”When we started it, I was not working, really, ever,“ she says. ”Now I’m trying to figure it out … I need to do both; I can’t just do acting.“

Following a year stockpiling indie cred with roles in ”Dare,“ ”The Winning Season,“ ”Tanner Hall“ and ”Youth in Revolt,“ she’s poised to star in the mainstream ”Nightmare on Elm Street“ franchise that reboots this April.

”Why not?“ she says, citing ”The Bad Seed“ and ”The Others“ as two of her favorite horror flicks.

It’s a solid start for someone who’d admired her sister’s blockbuster résumé — which includes ”Brokeback Mountain,“ ”We Are Marshall“ and ”Shooter“ — but as a child resisted the occupation, in part due to Kate’s success.

”I always wanted to be an actor, but I was always fighting it,“ Rooney Mara says. ”It never seemed that honorable to me, and I guess I was always afraid that I might fail. … I love my sister and have looked up to her my whole life — to the point of annoying her and wanting to be like her. I followed her around and stole her clothes; I still do.“As a New York University student studying psychology and nonprofits, Rooney appeared in a few student films, then felt obligated to try out for ”Romeo and Juliet“ after a friend signed her up to audition. She scored the lead female role and finally embraced acting as a career of her own.

She moved to Los Angeles, where she lived with her sister upon arrival.

”In high school, we weren’t that close,“ Mara says. ”And it was really nice to live with her, because now we’re so close.“

While the sisters no longer live together, they still talk shop and compare notes.

”We love movies and we love reading scripts,“ Rooney says. ”If I read a script that I like, she’s one of the first people I call.“

A great-granddaughter of the founders of football’s New York Giants (Tim Mara) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Art Rooney Sr.), and daughter of the Giants’ vice president of player evaluation (Chris Mara), Rooney Mara says it took years for her to appreciate the sport, but eventually came around.

”The reason I’m such a big football fan is it’s such an important part of my family,“ she says.

Her online auction, which launched Friday and ends Sunday, features plenty of Giants-related experiences and memorabilia, including tickets to a game with access to the radio broadcast booth and field, VIP privileges at training camp in Albany, and player-autographed jerseys and footballs. On the entertainment side, donors can bid on a drum skin autographed by Ringo Starr and tickets to see Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury star in a Broadway production of ”A Little Night Music.“

Between her matriculation at Fox Lane and NYU, Rooney Mara studied with The Traveling School, whose international curriculum took her to South America. Compelled to travel to other parts of the world three years ago, she took a trip with another nonprofit to Kibera, where she was exposed to the most abject poverty she’d ever witnessed.

”You see it in movies and on the news, but really unless you’re there and you can smell it and touch it and feel it and see it, you really can’t imagine what it’s like,“ she says. ”At all.“

Mara held a fund-raiser six months after her first Kibera trip, then returned to Kenya with backpacks and supplies for 120 children. Subsequent funds have provided electrical power, teacher funding and clean water.

Her most moving experience with Faces of Kibera involved moving six girls — including four who’d been sexually abused and another with HIV — to Hekima Place, a Kenyan facility run by family friend Kate Fletcher. ”It’s literally like heaven on earth, compared to anything I’ve seen,“ Mara says. ”I’ve been to countless children’s homes; the girls there, their lives are being completely changed.“

Danielle Rosati, one of Faces of Kibera’s board members, has known Mara since they were kindergartners at St. Patrick’s School in Bedford. After graduating from college, Rosati agreed to assist Mara with fund raising and help in Kenya for six weeks.

”I ended up extending my stay to four months,“ says Rosati, who has volunteered at Kibera orphanages. ”I also checked out the land Tricia purchased, and that’s where we’re planning on building our children’s home.“

The mission is daunting and, at times, overwhelming. With her acting career taking off, Mara wishes she could do more.

”This is the group of people that I’ve decided to help. I can’t help everyone, no matter how much I want to.“

Source: The Journal News

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