Interview: Kris Allen from ‘Idol Gives Back 2010’

We had the pleasure of speaking with Kris Allen from Season Eight of American Idol and Kathy Calvin, the CEO of the United Nations Foundation about Idol Gives Back and their trip to Haiti. Kris and Kathy give us some insight into the morale in Haiti at the moment, what the citizens of Haiti need the most, and how American Idol is getting involved to help.

Kris, could you describe, back before Idol, when you did the mission trips what those were like, just real briefly and then kind of compare it emotionally to the experience of going to Haiti this time?

Kris Allen: They were all different. I’ve been to a lot of different places, but I did do something similar because I went to Thailand right after the tsunami so I got to see a lot of destruction there. It was kind of the same deal. There was a lot of happiness and hope in people’s eyes. That was a great thing, and I felt like saw that in Haiti. The destruction was a lot and the devastation was a lot more in Haiti. You can see all the pictures or whatever, but until you go there and actually see it, it is insane how much destruction was caused. It was kind of the same thing, though. I think people were hurt by it and everyone was affected by that, but I think you could see, especially the way the UN was helping and just the smiles on the kids’ faces, they know that everything is going to be okay. It is going to take a long time, but everything is going to be hopefully better than it was.

I just wondered if you could think of a lasting memory that you will take away from this trip to Haiti? If you could just think of a picture that is in your mind when you think back on the trip? Also, secondly, was Katy (Kris’s wife) able to go with you?

Kris Allen: No, Katy was not able to go with me. It was a really short trip so she wasn’t able to go. I think there was a lot of lasting memories, but for me it’s always the kids. I got to go into this women’s tent and it felt like a really safe place and they were taking care of their babies, which are from newborn to two, and just taking care of them. I got to sing a song for them and hold a couple of babies. It just seemed so happy. It was a really cool experience.

What song did you sing?

Kris Allen: I sang “Amazing Grace.”

Aside from the charitable aspect of the appearance though, how will you feel about being back on the Idol stage? Is that an exciting prospect for you?

Kris Allen: I don’t know. It’s nerve-racking. The thing is about this, it’s not about me, so I think that feels really good. Every time that I was on that stage last year it was about me, and for this it’s not and that feels like a really good thing to come back there for.

How did this trip make you feel? Did you expect to see some of the things you saw, or did anything come as a surprise to you, or a shock?

Kris Allen: There was definitely some shock. I think the biggest shock for me – there was a lot of things – but the biggest thing was when went we went to the Palace in Haiti, and it’s kind of like a national icon kind of thing and it was completely in devastation. It’s like this huge beautiful place and it looked like the Palace of Versailles had been completely demolished. That was pretty crazy. There were definitely some shocking things. There were buildings down all over the place, people living in tiny little tents that are blazing hot, six or seven to a family. It was a pretty rough experience for them.

How did this affect you on a personal level?

Kris Allen: When you see something like that it definitely affects you. It makes you happy for what you have, but it also makes you want to do something to help those people, and I think it’s an innate human kind of thing. When you see people hurting, you want to help them.

Do you have any plans to go back in the future?

Kris Allen: I would love to. If I get some time I would love to go back there and help for a longer period of time. We were only there for nine or ten hours or something like that, so I’d like to go back and spend a longer period of time and get my hands dirty.

Kathy (CEO, United Nations Foundation) mentioned that you were cleaning through rubble and handing out rice bags. What can you tell me about what you were able to do and help with in the short time that you were there.?

Kris Allen: We went to a couple different places. The first place was like a camp that they had set up with a lot of tents and they were handing out some food. I got to help out with that. I got to hand out the different kinds of food that they were giving out to the people. I got to be a part of a registration thing where people were getting cards where they could get food and there was a cash for work program also where people; there were a lot of jobs that were just destroyed and so people are able to clear the rubble out for money during the day and I got to help out with that. That was hard work. I don’t know how they do that all day, but that was definitely some hard work. I got to do a couple other things and talk to the kids and play with them. It was nice for me to just get to be involved. I didn’t want to go there and just walk around and look at it. I wanted to do something.

You have a history with missionary work, you’ve been to, like you said, Thailand after the tsunami and now Haiti. After winning American Idol, after having a hit album and fans, when you go and see that kind of devastation does it feel different for you now? Is it even more humbling?

Kris Allen: I wouldn’t say that it’s more humbling because I felt like the stuff that I’d seen before was really humbling as well. It was definitely the worst devastation that I’ve seen and so that was different. When I went to South Africa and saw all the problems that they had there with the AIDS stuff, that was really rough, but this is on a totally different scale.

In the short period of time you were in Haiti, what would you say was the supply they needed the most? Was it food? Was it water? Was it medical supplies? What would you say?

Kris Allen: The thing that, and I think Kathy touched on this, was shelter because of the rainy season. So if you want to elaborate on that Kathy, you can.

Kathy Calvin: I would say Kris is absolutely right. It’s shelter. Over the next six weeks probably, the UN is going to deliver probably up to 30,000 tents and enough waterproof sheeting for a million people. They’ve got to build more substantial community centers that can withstand the tropical storms and I’d say, frankly, latrines. The biggest issue they’ve had is that they’ve not yet had an outbreak of any water-borne diseases, whether it be dysentery, or diarrhea, or cholera, or malaria, but as the rainy season comes and some of the camps are actually in the flood plain itself, they are going to have to move the people out of those. They have a huge logistical challenge ahead.

This is something the UN is really good at, and they really know what the system needs to do, but they do need help on housing and sanitation facilities pretty heavily. It’s not the kind of thing where people could just send them. They really need the money because they have a really effective way of bringing in the stuff that’s absolutely needed. Some stuff works in a rainy season and in a hurricane area, other stuff doesn’t. So while everybody wants to give and give of all of their assets, we really do need to remind people that money is the most effective way to do it, and giving to the UN is the surest way to get it to the people who need it the most.

We saw a lot of celebrities participate in the telethon and participate musically. Was it very important for you to be able to do something hands-on as opposed to participating in a telethon?

Kris Allen: I was actually going to do the telethon and then I was walking into the offices and Simon Fuller walked up to me. He was in the office and Simon Fuller was like “How would you feel about going to Haiti?” and I was like, “That sounds like way better.” I owe this to him and I was able to go and actually do something. That thing raised so much money and it was really moving as well, but to get to go there and actually be a part and talk to the Haitians and talk to the UN and see all that they were doing, it was a great thing.

Unfortunately, when we get a little bit of distance from these types of catastrophes some people sometimes forget how much help is needed. What would say to your fans to get them, to encourage them to participate and give to Idol Gives Back?

Kris Allen: That’s the thing about Haiti, there was so much money given at first, but this is going to last. This thing is not going away. They need so much help right now, and when I say help, they need a lot of money. The UN is out there doing everything that they can.

Kathy Calvin: You raise such a good question because the outpouring of compassion and giving at the beginning through the American Red Cross and everything else was phenomenal, and so impressive and empowering, but the challenge in all of these situations is the big ticket item is the long-term rebuilding and recovery. We need to keep people focused on that and that’s actually what Americans are really good at is helping countries build back and to become better than they were. This is a country that was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world, eight million people in a very small space and so it’s a situation where almost all the damage was done in areas where so many of the people live. They’ve got some real big challenges going forward and this
is right in our backyard and I think everybody should want to help out.

What exactly is the morale in Haiti like?

Kris Allen: We were actually talking to one of the Haitians there that was there translating for us, and I think it’s a little split. A lot of people have been really hurt and they’ve lost most of their family. They’ve lost a lot of their friends. They’ve lost their homes. No one is really staying in a home right now. I think there are a lot of people that feel like that it’s not going to turn around, but there is a whole bunch of people that believe in what’s going on and that believe in what the UN is doing, and all the help that they’ve been given. I think it’s up to the Haitians. We’re there to help them, but I feel like they want it to be a lot better. I think the morale is for the most part pretty good, for what’s happened to them anyway.

Kathy Calvin: I would agree with that and just add that there was a moment when people thought there might be serious violence in the streets, and if anything, this country has kept its cool far better than anyone expected. It has been really impressive and you see people really digging in. I think the fear is mothers with brand new babies, and the length of time it’s going to take for hospitals to get back up and running and that we have a nation with a large number of amputees now, so there are some systemic problems that make it challenging. But Kris is right, we saw just such commitment by the people and gratitude that they weren’t alone and that others were trying to help them. Everybody who can watch on Thursday and who can follow-up will be greatly appreciated.

Kathy, I wonder how you would describe conditions in Haiti right now. Are things improving at all, or is it just so dire that you don’t even look at it in those terms?

Kathy Calvin: I think people from the UN Foundation, for instance, who went in in the very first days after the earthquake, and certainly the folks from the UN who have been there the entire time, there is big improvement in that we’ve now found almost all of the people who died in the quake, and we’ve gotten people into hospitals. Interestingly, people have created their own living spaces and communities, so there is a sense of progress. I think the challenge is you just don’t know how long people can live through that kind of a dislocated environment.

One really interesting thing that has happened is that within the last few weeks the marketplace has come back into play, so you see people selling fruits and vegetables from the fields and that is exciting to see an economy coming back. People lost a lot of money and they lost the ability to make money, but I think once there’s a market, you know people will find ways to restore the basic elements of a working system.

I think there is important progress on things that need to be put in place. The UN is in there for the long-haul and that was actually something really important that people wanted to hear. Kris even asked that, “You guys are going to stay here, right?” They’re committed. They were in there for the long-haul before and they’re definitely in for the long-haul now. I think President Clinton has also made it very clear that his role as the Special Envoy is one that will continue until we really see Haiti back on its feet.

You must have seen so many little kids out there that you just probably wanted to hug and bring back with you. What was it like interacting with them and to look in their eyes?

Kris Allen: That was the most incredible thing, and it always is because I’ve done this before, you can always see the hope and stuff in the kids’ eyes because they don’t exactly know what’s going on. They kind of do, but some of them, they’re smiling and they’re having a good time, and I think that’s the moments that I like to grab on to. I got to hang out with some kids and some little ones. This little kid was playing a Coke bottle, he wrapped a rubber band around the Coke bottle and started singing to me and playing it at the same time. They’re making the most out of everything and I think that we can take a lot out from how kids react when stuff like this happens. When you get to really hang out with the kids and play with them and just see how excited they are to see you and to hang out with you for a second, it means so much.

Kathy Calvin: Hey Kris, you even learned some Creole, right?

Kris Allen: I tried.

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