Gwendoline Yeo could not resist the urge to shop.
The actress, whose credits include roles on “Desperate Housewives” and “American Crime,” was far from the shopping meccas of Los Angeles. But seconds into her visit to Grateful Threadz, Christian Appalachian Project’s Mount Vernon thrift store, she was whipping a burgundy sweater dress off the rack — “For fall, which is in like four months, in L.A.,” Yeo declared.
But Yeo was searching for something far more meaningful than fall fashions on her week in Kentucky, which wraps up Wednesday. She had already made a substantial contribution to Christian Appalachian Project, a regional service organization, after discovering it through a Diane Sawyer report for ABC about children in Appalachia.
Yeo was moved by the stories of children growing up in poverty that echoed her mother’s childhood in Singapore.
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“No shoes, she had to grind curry powder in the mornings, seven kids — kind of a work-force farm kind of family,” Yeo says.
By the time Yeo found Sawyer’s story, it was already four years old. But Christian Appalachian Project was still active, and Yeo made a contribution through a portion of the sales of her limited clothing line and a personal contribution.
Parallel to that, the native of Singapore was also on a personal journey to visit all 50 states, which she says she will chronicle in a book. As she planned to come to No. 47, Kentucky, Yeo decided she wanted to visit the Christian Appalachian Project to find out what it was all about.
“I gave them about 30 hours notice, and said I’m coming,” Yeo says with a laugh. “They just churned out an itinerary, and what I realized when I saw their facilities was, this is no joke. They are kind of like the quiet hero of eastern Appalachia. One of the volunteers said, ‘I don’t know what East Kentucky would do without CAP.’”
Since arriving last Thursday, Yeo has visited the organization’s headquarters, some building projects in the Paintsville area and Johnson County High School, where she played one of the keyboards alumnus and country star Chris Stapleton had donated to the school in a project with Ram Trucks.
Her Tuesday morning schedule had her at CAP’s Family Life Child Development Center, where she joined a preschool class for breakfast and a reading of the Eric Carle children’s classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
As they dine on Cheerios and milk, Yeo peels a banana for one boy and explains the stones on her necklace to the children. One, she says, is to protect her voice and “have the courage to tell the truth,” another is for bravery and compassion, another is to protect her heart, and then there’s her birthstone, the ruby.
“They said, ‘I love your necklace, I love your beads, I love those colors,’” she said of the children’s questions. “These kids, I just get it, and I love their hearts. What I love about kids who struggle, having been through it, is you just want the honest truth and to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Project officials acknowledged most of the kids were unfamiliar with Yeo’s film work, including roles on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Castle,” but said there was great value simply in her presence.
“Any time someone comes and reads to them, it’s wonderful,” said Tina Bryson, manager of public relations for Christian Appalachian Project. “She’s an actress, and her voice and her facial expressions really open them up.”
Mike Loiacono, Cumberland Valley Director of Human Services for CAP, said, “It is a great opportunity for them to meet someone from a different culture: California. They see the difference in how people talk and how they dress. Our curriculum does focus on diversity and exploring other cultures.”
At other stops, Yeo has talked to students about topics such as bullying, which she says she experienced in school, as well as talking to theater students about their craft, and leading exercises.
Wednesday, she will help with work at the Sassy Fox in Lexington, which makes regular donations to Grateful Threadz, and talk to students at The Woodford Theatre in Versailles.
Yeo says she is not sure what her continued relationship with Christian Appalachian Project will be; that this was a visit to learn what they do and how she could help.
As she leaves the Child Development Center, the children shout goodbye and she makes a heart symbol with her hands that they mirror back. Whether she was shopping for clothes or charitable work, in that connection, she found something priceless.
If you go
What: Question and answer about television and her film career, geared toward students and their families.
When: 5 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Woodford Theatre, 275 Beasley Road, Versailles
Admission: Free, but reservations are required