"I'm just really glad Jon likes pancakes," Dr. Brook Bello, founder of the Sarasota-based nonprofit More Too Life, says with a laugh.
The Jon she's referring to is award-winning actor Jon Voight, known for his roles in films like Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance, and currently starring in Showtime's Ray Donovan, for which he won a Golden Globe in 2014. The 77-year-old met Bello--then trying to begin her own acting career--years ago, after she'd extricated herself from a sex trafficking situation and was working as a waitress at the Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles, a spot Voight frequented. The actor saw something special in Bello, he says, and took her under his wing; they've been friends ever since.
"Jon would come in a few times a week and I started serving him pancakes with extra butter," Bello says, describing their relationship as akin to an uncle and a niece. "He recognized something in me that I didn't see in myself. He's the first man that I ever met who was a father figure, and didn't want anything but for me to succeed. He let me see and understand that men are safe and beautiful. That's why he's here now. This is full circle for us."
The pair is working with Ringling College, David Shapiro's Semkhor Productions and actor Dylan McDermott on McDermott's Sugar project, a web series about a young runaway which was shot in Sarasota this summer and which also aims to bring awareness to human trafficking. And Semkhor and Ringling College will be working with Bello and More Too Life to develop documentary projects that explore the root causes of human trafficking--something Voight calls "a plague."
Bello, who was just named Survivor Advocate of the Year by Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, adds that she's grateful for all the support she and More Too Life have received locally, both from Ringling and Semkhor and the Sarasota community.
"Yeah, it's a cool place," Voight says. "Come on down!"
He adds he was especially inspired by the student work he saw being done at Ringling. "They put me in classrooms and everything, and thank God, these kids are so nice, they didn't mind the interruption!" he says. "And I was very, very impressed."
“Film is very powerful and has the ability to make an impact,” he adds. "And with the explosion of technology, we’re able to tell stories we never could before, in ways we never could."