As one of the most recognizable names in the entertainment industry today, Selena Gomez is frequently the subject of idle fodder. People talk about her music. They talk about her film choices. They discuss whom she dates and which designers she likes to wear.
When we had the pleasure of chatting with Gomez recently, though, we focused on an entirely different — and often overlooked — facet of the 21-year-old talent's life: her work as an ambassador for UNICEF, the global children's rights and emergency relief organization.
Fresh from a mission trip with the organization to Nepal, Gomez was still reeling from her experiences there. "There are beautiful places in Nepal, of course, but in the towns we went to, there are children who die before their first birthday from preventable causes," she told us, also noting that Nepal is still recovering from a serious conflict that occurred 10 years ago.
In her capacity as a UNICEF ambassador, Gomez assisted the organization with everything from education to spending time in the birthing center — a task she found particularly touching.
"I got to go the hospital to the birthing center, and that was actually really beautiful," she shared. "They have women volunteers who go out and get women who are pregnant — who aren't in a healthy environment — and bring them to the birthing center. UNICEF provides all of the equipment and all of the immunizations; so then the women are essentially safe. They are now having a healthy birthing process."
Seeing firsthand how teaching simple things, like washing your hands and breastfeeding, impacts people in impoverished areas was merely one part of a greater narrative during the trip that helped remind Gomez how much people in America and elsewhere have a tendency to take things for granted.
"I think in this time of my life, being 21, it was the perfect trip to take on my own," she admitted.
In the process of helping UNICEF educate the children of Nepal — as well as children on her other trips with the organization to Ghana and Chile — Gomez has learned quite a bit, too. "You don't actually realize just how important simple clean water is, whether it's something you cook with, something you bathe in, you shower in," she revealed of having to drink bottled water and not having access to clean water in some of the places they traveled to.
With 2.5 billion people living without clean water and waterborne illness being the second leading cause of death for children under 5 years old globally, it's a pervasive issue, to say the least. But it's one that UNICEF is actively trying to combat through the implementation of wells and water-based programs.
"I am the person — and I'm just being honest — who opens a bottle of water, takes two sips and puts it down," Gomez confessed to us. "And [UNICEF] just changed my whole perspective on it. When I went to India right after, I didn't even want bottled water. I was like, 'I'm good with the water you have.' And that's something you want to remember always. That's why I take those trips."
Traveling to some of the free classes UNICEF offers also resonated with Gomez. "Part of what UNICEF is helping immensely in is just the actual books, the things they are learning with," she said. "They're learning different textures from a bottle of water and learning colors from pieces of cloth. Their way of gathering information is beautiful, because it is something we complain about every day. I remember when I was in school and having to do homework… it's something we forget is a privilege."
In that respect, the sincere star feels sharing her UNICEF experiences with her fans is an important part of the journey. "Some of my fans don't even know where Nepal is. That's something I'm able to provide for my audience, because if anything, this is what it starts with: them knowing and hopefully encouraging them to speak about it and know what's really important in the world."
Gomez is certainly making an impact on the children she visits with UNICEF (as well as on her fans), but it's also clear the work she does with the organization is equally life-altering for her.
When we ask what struck her the most about the children of Nepal, we thought we caught a quiver in her voice. "Their attitudes, honestly. Not one child recognized me. It was just how they viewed life — it was barefoot, running around, making sure they were with their families. There was nothing else they cared about other than being together, working, because that's what they're told to do and getting an education. And playing with a soccer ball, if they have one."
That truth, in itself, is all the thanks Gomez needs for her hard work with UNICEF.
"They're happy. They're just happy," she mused. "That is the most incredible thing. I can explain it to you over the phone, I can explain it to you in person, I can try to say it on my Instagram and tell all my fans, but when you actually are around someone who is in a much direr situation than you are and you're there watching them be happier than you… that says so much of someone. And that's exactly what I needed."
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