“In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit.”
Best known as Detective Olivia Benson on the NBC series “Law & Order: SVU,” Emmy Award-winning actress and activist Mariska Hargitay works equally hard on television and in real life to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
Established in 2004, Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation has raised more than $33 million toward ending domestic violence, and has served thousands of survivors through healing experiences, education and advocacy, including support for testing the vast backlog of rape kits.
When a chance meeting brought Hargitay’s charity to the attention of Stowe couple Deirdre and Chuck Sanzone, they leaped at the opportunity to craft a unique donation.
A musician and craftsman, Chuck makes and repairs guitars and mandolins from his home and workshop in Stowe. Last fall, he was commissioned to make a guitar for the 25th anniversary celebration of a New York City jeweler, who inlaid the instrument with gold. The Sanzones attended the event and were seated with Karoline Katus, the development officer of the Joyful Heart Foundation.
“She told us about who she was and what she did, and the horror stories of what has been happening in our system,” Deirdre said. “I honestly had no idea! It’s infuriating to hear, to say the least.”
After returning home, Deirdre immediately reached out to Katus and offered Chuck’s craftsmanship to make a custom guitar to be auctioned off at a Joyful Heart gala event.
“They were blown away and said yes, and thank you. But, then I had to go and tell Chuck that he was going to make a guitar for this cause,” Deirdre said. “He’s an amazing guy with talent and a big heart, so he was on it!”
Chuck, who crafts his instruments using hand tools, wooden molds and centuries-old techniques, made a beautiful guitar, which they brought to New York for the gala on May 22.
“We have never attended an event of this caliber,” Deirdre said. “It was surreal.”
A red carpet event and cocktail hour preceded the auction, and when they met Hargitay, her husband, Peter Hermann, was “blown away” by the guitar.
As for Hargitay, she’s “as beautiful on the inside as she is on the out; a very genuine, caring, accessible and down-to-earth person,” Deirdre said.
After dinner, the auction began: first a vacation package, then a tennis excursion with John McEnroe and Hargitay, then an on-set meeting with the cast of “Law & Order.” The Sanzones began to wonder when the guitar would show up.
Then, splashed across a huge screen, it appeared: “Rock Out with Joan Jett.”
The guitar, autographed by Hargitay, would then be signed by Jett, and come with a lesson from the “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” queen herself.
The bidding started at $5,000, and rocketed up to finish at $13,000.
“We were so excited to be able to raise money in the only way we could for such a great cause,” Deirdre said.
While the celebrity-studded gala and afterparty were wonderful, Deirdre said the real stars of the night were the assault survivors in attendance.
“It was their evening, and they shined brighter than the full moon on a clear, starry night,” Deirdre said. “To see them overcome such a traumatic experience and smile again was amazing! These were strong women and Chuck and I were honored to be part of it.”