Heidi Hamels Is More Than Just Mrs. Cole Hamels

The former Survivor contestant is doing something far bigger than reality TV—trying to save Africa.

Photo by Christopher Gabello.

Photo by Christopher Gabello.

Heidi Hamels will hate the way this story begins.

But this is where her story must begin, because without it, the farm girl never becomes a celebrity, which is how she meets a handsome young man with a wicked changeup who asks her to marry him, and that handsome man doesn’t win a World Series, or tell his wife that her passion is his passion and yes, to take briefcases full of his money and create a foundation that will, without exaggeration, save the lives of children in a far-away country he’s never stepped foot in, and to adopt an orphan from another far-away country, and while she’s at it, to give a little hope to the rundown public schools in the city they now call home.

So the story starts here: Heidi Strobel, as she was known then, standing on a wooden perch in the middle of a blackwater river in the Amazon, hungry and exhausted in the way that makes you do strange things, preparing to take her clothes off for Oreo cookies and peanut butter and a soda in front of what would later be a national television audience. To everyone watching—maybe even herself—it seemed as though she’d traded her dignity for a snack and a morsel of fame, without knowing she was actually about to take her first step toward something much bigger. Naked and unafraid, Heidi jumped.

Heidi Hamels would prefer to begin just about anywhere else, like the first time we meet. Though she usually avoids the word “celebrity,” that’s what she is, and has been, to varying degrees, since her appearance on season six of CBS’s Survivor 10 years ago. We are introduced at XIX, the restaurant high atop the Bellevue with stunning views of the skyline, where Heidi has just been honored as one of the city’s most fashionable women by Nicole Miller Philadelphia. The 35-year-old looks the part—perfectly put-together in a silvery-gray dress that shows off her toned figure, kleig-light smile, blond hair extensions spiraling across her slim shoulders. When Heidi stands up from her table to greet me, she shimmers. “Would you like some food?” she offers, before ordering steak frites and a glass of cabernet. “Do you mind if I eat while we talk?”

By her side is G-N Kang, the director of operations for the Philadelphia office of the Hamels Foundation, the nonprofit Heidi and her husband, 29-year-old Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, launched in 2008. G-N opens her chrome-shelled MacBook and scrolls through photos from the foundation’s latest trip to Malawi, in September. The African nation holds a number of unwanted distinctions, including more than half a million children orphaned by AIDS and the title of eighth poorest country in the world. I know these things because Heidi tells them to me in a breathless burst, like a five-year-old who just can’t wait to tell you a story! Her passion project is a $3.5 million primary school her foundation is building in the village of Namunda, where young girls are more likely to become prostitutes than high-school graduates. Many Malawian children are raised by their grandparents, because their parents are dead. Every graduate of a Hamels Foundation school will have seven skill sets that will hopefully translate into jobs someday. G-N finally speaks, explaining that the act of fetching water there requires a five-mile walk, then five more back home. “Great point, G-N,” Heidi says. “Such a great point. Glad you brought that up.”

Some people would describe Heidi as a “force of nature.” Others might call her simply annoying—so unrelenting with all the Africa stuff. Okay, yes, we get it, you’re saving the world. But consider that Forbes recently named the Hamels Foundation “an athlete charity that actually works,” because 100 percent of the money it raises is invested in Africa and the places Heidi and Cole have called home—San Diego and Philadelphia and Springfield, Missouri. Of all the athletes and their wives in this town, only two other couples—Chase and Jen Utley and Jimmy and Johari Rollins—have achieved such name-recognition status. They also run their own worthwhile charities. But the Hamelses have both local and global goals, and live like they preach—last fall, they adopted an orphaned baby girl from Ethiopia. Their annual “Diamonds and Denim” fete has become one of the city’s must-attend social events. Heidi and Cole are the closest thing Philadelphia has to Brangelina. As Heidi later tells me, “I hate to even use another celebrity in an interview, because you don’t want to take their idea as your own, but Angelina Jolie one time said, ‘I hope nobody remembers me as an actress. I hope everybody remembers me as a U.N. ambassador.’”

Yes, she says “another celebrity,” as if she and Angie are in the same club. Perhaps you find that distasteful or laughable—or honest, because it’s true, to a degree. Heidi doesn’t really care what you think of her, as long as the foundation’s mission—her mission—is understood. Somewhere in the middle of her Malawi filibuster at XIX, Heidi shares two anecdotes that help tell her story, to explain how she went from reality-TV star to international do-gooder. We’ll save one tale for later. The other happened after she’d finished Survivor, when she asked the show’s host, Jeff Probst, why she’d been selected to compete.

“He said they picked me because I was strong and tough,” she says, “but that the GP—that’s the general public—wouldn’t believe a pretty blonde could be smart. That’s when I knew I was in trouble.”

Heidi Strobel never auditioned for Survivor. She’d never even seen the show back in Missouri, where she grew up in farm country that prides itself on life that’s “a little slower … and a whole lot friendlier.” Heidi and her two younger sisters were raised with values that seem almost old-fashioned now—whether you have enough food for a feast or one slice of bread, you give half to someone in need. “In the spiritual world, you might call her an indigo child,” says Heidi’s mother, Kathy Greene, referring to the New Age concept that certain people are born with heightened sensitivity to the needs of those around them. “She has the gifts of compassion and empathy.” Kathy was the daughter of a Navy pilot and traveled the globe as a child, from Laos to Europe, and she’d tell her girls what her own mother always said: “Don’t be afraid of the world.” Kathy was also an accountant, and her eldest showed a knack for entrepreneurship from an early age—chicken eggs were sold, a neighborhood newspaper was created, kiddie drawings became a curbside art gallery. Never mind that her street saw about four cars a day. Heidi had big ideas.

At age 21, Heidi was studying to be a teacher when she heard about a new television show called The Amazing Race, a global scavenger hunt with a million-dollar prize. She made an audition tape with her grandfather, but the show’s creator, Mark Burnett, wanted just Heidi, for his other reality contest, Survivor. After weeks of lobbying and pleas from Burnett himself, Heidi relented and eventually arrived in the Amazon jungle ready to compete. Or so she thought.

Heidi liked The Amazing Race because it’s a team competition of larky adventure. Survivor is nothing like that. You’re starving, living in makeshift shelters, exposed to monsoons and scorching heat, and all the while, it’s the social game that matters as much as, if not more than, the physical one. Heidi was an athlete—a runner and a basketball player. But she wasn’t prepared for the emotional chess match she’d signed up for. This was also 2002, before we understood just how unreal reality TV can be. I watched that season when it aired the following year, and I remember Heidi, or perhaps more accurately her “character”: cute phys-ed teacher using her looks more than her brains. Heidi’s mom had a different reaction: “I’d say, ‘That’s not my child.’”

It didn’t help Heidi’s image when, during the physical challenge, after standing on that perch for as long as she could last, she volunteered to disrobe for a meal. Or that she snuggled at night with a male cast member. Or opined that most women, if told of their partner’s desire for a ménage à trois, would oblige. During the season-finale reunion show, Probst revealed that the contestant with the highest IQ was … Heidi. No one saw that coming.

A week after our XIX chat, we’re in Heidi’s silver Lexus SUV, on our way to pick up her eldest son, Caleb, from his Main Line grade school. She’s fresh from teaching a boot-camp class—black leggings, loose tank draped over a sports bra, purple-accented sneaks. She looks like a hundred other moms around here, except none of them get asked for their autographs. See, Heidi and her ally on the show, Jenna Morasca, not only bared all on Survivor; they later posed for Playboy—together. Like going on television, it was a very un-Heidi thing to do—unless you know that after the show wrapped, Heidi weighed 86 pounds and felt her left leg go numb from a spider bite, and that a treatment for parasites she’d contracted in the Amazon led to kidney failure and physical problems that linger to this day. When her health improved and Playboy came calling, Heidi thought, Why not? It was another adventure, and she felt lucky to be alive for it. Heidi was YOLO before YOLO was a thing.

As we sit idling in the parking lot of Caleb’s school, Heidi considers how the show changed her. “Pre-Survivor, I was very innocent,” she says.

“Were you mad at Mark Burnett?” I ask.

“I think I was mad at myself. Like, Oh my gosh, I don’t like to be had. I ask so many questions because I’m a calculated risk-taker. I felt like, man, I did not do my homework here. That’s my own fault.”

But maybe even Heidi forgets what happened in that infamous episode, because for her, it wasn’t an episode. It was a day—a very strange day—a very long time ago in her actual life. At that point in the contest, the guys outnumbered the women, six to four. The cocky alpha males spoke to the camera and told the audience the girls would be picked off, one by one. But the tables turned. Heidi and her ladies’ alliance quietly schemed, recruiting three guys to vote with them. What’s best remembered as the show’s “Girls Gone Wild” segment—and what cemented Heidi’s status as a Google Image search topic—was really an episode of empowerment. If Heidi came across like a strumpet, she was playing the game like a pro.

Jenna won that season, and with it, a million bucks. Heidi placed a respectable fifth, and would end up throwing out the first pitch at a minor-league baseball park in Clearwater, Florida. It seemed like one heck of a lousy consolation prize.

Cole Hamels is pissed. He’s sitting on a couch on the rooftop of the Hotel Monaco in Old City, Heidi curled up next to him in a gray hoodie and light denim jeans, her legs folded beneath her, feet bare. She’s fresh-faced and bespectacled, and today looks nothing like one of Philadelphia’s most fashionable women. Cole is casual, too, in jeans, a gray waffle shirt and a navy puffer vest. I open with what I think is an icebreaker, a total softball: “How was Caleb’s birthday party?” When we picked him up at school, towheaded Caleb had been adorable and sweet, chatting about his Avengers book bag.

“No comment,” Cole replies, stone-faced, his stare withering. “No, seriously, I’m not talking about the kids.”

“Cole, babe,” Heidi says. “You’re on edge right now. Sorry, it’s stressful, the last week.”

To be fair, Cole is barely removed from the most disappointing season of his Phillies career. Though he pitched far better than his 8-14 record showed, the team’s playoff hopes died in midsummer, and attendance took a nosedive. Cole is also still stinging from a bad experience with another magazine that used his image on its cover without his consent. The only reason he does interviews away from baseball, and Heidi does any at all, is to promote the Hamels Foundation’s work.

Back in 2004, Cole Hamels wasn’t the Cole Hamels—not quite yet. He was a young lefty with the Phillies farm team, the Clearwater Threshers, sidelined by elbow tendonitis and curious about the blonde that people were lining up to see during the game. Dressed in street clothes, Cole did a very un-Cole thing—he stood in the queue to ask her out. Heidi then did a very un-Heidi thing—she said yes. This brings us to the other anecdote Heidi told me at XIX: On the night of their first date, at a sports bar in the middle of nowhere, without knowing Cole’s age (20 at the time; Heidi was 25) or even his last name, she told him, “If you want to be the best, you need to act like the best.” It’s a heady thing to say to anyone, but Heidi prides herself on making quick and accurate character studies of people she meets. “I told him, ‘Man, I can see how much potential you have as a human being. I see you being the backseat driver of your life. Don’t do that. You’re amazing.’” For their second date a week later, Cole flew coach to Missouri. (“I had to stretch some facts so I could get an extra day off,” he admits with a smile. “I was really happy.”)

Two years later, Heidi and Cole were clinking champagne flutes at their New Year’s Eve wedding, and two years after that, Cole was named the MVP of the World Series. Does that happen if Heidi doesn’t deliver her pep talk on their first date? Possibly. But who knows what kind of butterfly effect would have kicked in if Cole had met a different woman, one who didn’t encourage him to seize greatness and, when greatness came, how to handle all that came with it? Cole credits Heidi for helping him navigate the choppy waters of fame. “The worst part about it,” Cole says of celebrity, “is I don’t want it. But I knew what I signed up for, and Heidi understood. For eight months out of the year, you’re gonna take a backseat. The next four months, I take the backseat. Heidi is so confident in herself that I knew she would be able to survive this lifestyle. We see it every day—a lot of people can’t.”

Africa. Yes, we’re getting to Africa—later than Heidi would like us to get to Africa, but sometimes Heidi, for all her instincts and research and passion, is wrong. She thinks some people only remember her for Playboy and only remember Cole for the time he got into a bar fight during spring training and broke his throwing hand. That’s ridiculous, of course. In Philadelphia, Cole Hamels will forever be The Man who brought a parade to Broad Street after 25 miserable years. If you remember Heidi for those pin-up photos, you’re likely between the ages of 45 and 55, a hoarder of old magazines, and a pervert. It’s taken us a while to get to Africa because it took Heidi a while to get to Africa, but if we’re going to remember her for Africa more than anything else, then Heidi’s road to Africa has to make sense.

The simple version is this: Heidi never lost sight of becoming a teacher, and on her way to the PhD in secondary education she’s finishing at West Chester University (Probst wasn’t kidding about her IQ score), she began traveling to third-world countries for her master’s thesis paper, to see for herself how children learn in places like Cambodia and Mozambique. One of her stops was Malawi, a peaceful African nation ravaged by AIDS and best known as the country where Madonna blew $3.8 million in donations for a girls’ academy that never opened. A picture crystallized: She wanted to help folks in places like this.

The biggest need was in Africa, and the solution that Heidi understood best began with teaching. Cole had been thinking about how to give back, and it made sense—his parents were educators. With a quarter- million dollars of his money, the Hamels Foundation was launched. In its cozy offices on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, you can buy autographed Cole merch or a $1 pack of limited-edition Big League Chew. The five staffers, here and in a Missouri office (they include Heidi’s mom), are paid by the pitcher himself, ensuring that every dollar raised ends up in the hands of the needy.

The trick, then, is how to explain what the foundation is doing without sounding like one of those grim commercials that remind us how a quarter can save a child’s life. Because that would be easy to do. A “classroom” in the village of Namunda is often 100 kids gathered around a tree; a poster of a stick-figure child in a local orphanage reads “I have AIDS, please hug me, I can’t make you sick.” Perhaps the most striking visual is one Heidi saw on her sixth and most recent visit, this past September. As her truck pulled into Namunda, children rushed to greet it. Curious elders followed. Missing was the generation in between, vanquished by AIDS.

But Malawi also offers hope—with no violent civil unrest, progress has been sustainable, as Jones Laviwa can attest. Laviwa is a native of Zimbabwe and the foundation’s project manager in Namunda, overseeing the construction of 36 classrooms, a soccer field, and housing for teachers. He’s spent more than three decades as a social worker in Malawi. His praise for outsiders is hard-earned. “So many times, people have been disappointed with aid promises which fail to materialize, or projects that either fail to start or are abandoned,” he writes to me. “Heidi met with chiefs, community leaders, teachers, local people, as well as children. I respected and trusted her because the questions she raised assured me I was talking to a serious person who wanted to do something about a desperate situation.”

Todd Schafer, CEO of the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, which has partnered with the Hamels Foundation, says that though saving Africa has become the cause du jour of every A-Lister, Heidi’s level of involvement is rare. “Celebrities want to parachute in the money without getting their hands dirty,” he says. “Heidi loves to get her hands dirty. She’s bubbling over with enthusiasm and has no hesitation in declaring what she doesn’t know. The only reason she’s not there building the thing herself is because she has three kids.”

And whether Cole likes it or not, those kids are an essential part of this story, too. Along with Caleb, who just turned four, and two-year-old Braxton, there’s Reeve, the Hamelses’ gift after a four-year journey through a tangled international adoption process that led them to an Ethiopian orphanage in October 2012. Both parents needed to be present; if the Phillies had made an (improbable) playoff run, they would have had to start all over again.

“That’s a proud moment, the first time you see your kid,” Cole says of meeting Reeve, now 17 months old. “You’re fortunate enough to not only welcome them to your family, but they’re welcoming you. We’re teaching each other something. It’s special.” That’s SoCal Cole talking—the West Coast beach-volleyball dude who complements Heidi’s Midwest country-gal sensibilities and has no problem taking a backseat as long as his babe’s the one driving.

Lost in all the talk of Africa is that the first recipient of Hamels Foundation money was Philadelphia. “It was a football community, and baseball just kind of took over,” Cole says. “And we were like, let’s do something, because these people have welcomed us with open arms. We got a fast understanding of how bad the schools are here.” Cole has yet to visit Malawi—the risk of malaria is too great, and the Phillies don’t need their ace catching a potentially fatal disease. But he’s a regular at ribbon- cuttings for the 25 local public schools that have so far received $790,000 in Hamels grants, for everything from literary programs to playgrounds. Heidi, her mother and a few Hamels educators interview each prospective recipient school principal in person. “One person can make a difference,” Heidi says. “That one person is the principal. You make a difference in these kids’ lives, and we want to help you make the biggest impact. You got something great goin’ on, man. How can we be a part of that?”

Stetson Middle School didn’t appear to have anything great going on. Stalled at the corner of B and Allegheny streets in Kensington, it was on the city’s “persistently dangerous” list. When Renato Lajara was offered the job as its principal, a district official called him to suggest he think about whether he wanted to take on such a lost cause. But Lajara, who grew up less than a mile away, didn’t hesitate. Heidi’s group was so excited after meeting him, they called back that afternoon to share the good news: Stetson would be the foundation’s first grant recipient. A $50,000 check was on its way. Lajara was the last person left in the building. No one heard his cries of joy, or his sobbing.

“I still get goose bumps,” Lajara tells me of that phone call. “It showed our kids that people really cared about them. In the past, no one did.”

He goes on to talk about how Heidi and her mom came back to help paint the library, and how his science classes have actual lab tables now. He tells me that when his father died three years ago, long after Heidi and Cole were done at Stetson, he received a huge plant from the couple. “It’s supposed to bring happiness,” he says. Hours after our interview ends, Lajara emails me a photo. The plant is still in his office.

At a photo studio in Fishtown, Heidi cuddles with Cole, who brushes a wisp of hair from her face. They hold hands, so at ease with each other, so distractingly good-looking. Let’s face it—it’s easy to mock these two, mostly because we’re jealous. If you can fault them for something, it’s for being so damn earnest. Remember that ad for the condos at Liberty Two, the one where Cole’s cradling Heidi’s pregnant belly and they’re both dressed in white, like we’re bearing witness to a modern-day Immaculate Conception? Sometimes celebrities do strange things.

But sometimes, celebrities can surprise you if you watch them when they think no one’s watching. The cameras stop clicking, and Heidi chats with the makeup artist like they’re old friends. After the shoot, she thanks everyone and carries her own bags to the car. Cole’s quieter, but while Heidi’s taking solo shots, he slips naturally into bro mode. Last week he was in New Orleans for an old San Diego buddy’s bachelor party—two dudes to a bed, their rented bus broke down, they bought cheesy t-shirts from every gas station they could find. There’s no sign of the Cole who was on guard at the Hotel Monaco, even when talk turns to last season. “Our hitting sucked,” he says. “We’d had so much success. It was hard for our organization to cut it off. If you want to be successful again, you have to know when to start over.” He’s already looking forward to what he describes as his new role as a clubhouse leader. “I still think of myself as a kid,” he says. “This season, I realized I’m that guy.”

It’s hard to miss the echoes of Heidi’s philosophy on life in her husband’s words. She told me that whenever her girlfriends met someone they thought might be The One, her advice was always the same—don’t hesitate, go for it. The Phils froze when it was time to rebuild; now they’re paying for it. Cole knows it’s his turn to lead, and rather than rest on his $144 million contract, the ace is stepping up his own social game, not unlike the way his wife once did, years ago. It would have been easy to start a small charity, throw some money at it and rush back to their fabulous lives. Instead, they went all in. “You just gotta believe,” Heidi says, “that something great is on the other side.”

I know your eyes are rolling. Easy to “believe” when you’re Mrs. Cole Hamels and you can whine about the same fame that led you to become Mrs. Cole Hamels, which affords you the opportunity to do great things. But plenty of one-percenters like Mrs. Cole Hamels don’t do anything great. Reality stars, especially. Just ask Jeff Probst, who emails me to explain why he hasn’t seen Heidi much in recent years: “Heidi was not one of those contestants that hung around lobbying to be on the show again. In fact, we asked her to be on the first All-Star season and she turned us down. Very few people have turned us down for a second shot. Heidi played one season, had her fun and moved on with the rest of her life. I really respect that.”

Though her story began on that perch in the Amazon, it’s not going back there. It’s going forward—Heidi is going for it, whenever she can, because she believes good things come to those who trust in their big ideas. And in those moments when the chasm between big ideas and reality seems too wide, she leaps. That’s the teachable moment of Heidi’s story, one that doesn’t require a TV show or fame or a rich husband to learn. In her car, waiting for Caleb, Heidi’s eager to talk about Malawi and motherhood. A self-described “master planner”—she maintains three calendars at home to keep everyone’s schedules in synch—she’s constantly thinking about her kids’ future. “I’m preparing them to be the best human beings they can be,” she says with complete sincerity. “That’s why I’ve rehearsed this so many times in my head. When they say, ‘Mom, I met a girl,’ I’m gonna be like, ‘Jump.’”

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