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.

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.