Santa Barbara Magazine
By Marcia Meier
They met on a bus in Mexico. Both recently had lost their respective spouses, and had independently traveled to Rancho La Puerta, the famous spa in Tecate, Baja, Mexico. On the return bus trip to San Diego, Yoel Haller happened to sit down next to Eva Roman and struck up a conversation. When he discovered that, like him, she was recently widowed, he asked, “What do you miss the most?” “Conspiracy,” she answered, the conspiracy of two people who love and know each other so well they understand without speaking. “The light went on,” Yoel said. “By the time I got off (the bus) I knew I was going to marry her.”
And he did, just six months later. That was 17 years ago. Since then, they have conspired to change the world for the better.
Eva and Yoel Haller are Santa Barbara’s philanthropists extraordinaire. Driven by a desire to improve the lives of people here and the world over, they move at a breakneck pace. On a recent evening in Haller Central -- the lovely and warm kitchen of their Hope Ranch home -- visitors were served pound cake and chocolate mousse along with smoothies made from apricots from their trees. The cell phone rang. Eva was soon discussing the details of a dinner for cellist Yo Yo Ma after his UCSB concert, which was two days away. A few minutes later the desk phone rang, and Yoel was confirming information about an April visit to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles by Jane Goodall, one of their dear friends.
They seem to know everyone, and they press everyone they know into service to benefit the many causes they espouse, even e-mailing their friends missives from 34,000 feet. Upon leaving Central Asia in October 2000, they wrote: “What a trip this has been! To be in countries with limited resources, political opposition from their leadership, yet prevail in creating a civil society! We are so proud of Counterpart for breaking down resistance and educating a generation to appreciate civil rights, family law, respect for women and disabled children, and all done with native talent and local involvement. …”
Over the years, the Hallers have been involved with countless Santa Barbara organizations, notably the Music Academy of the West, UCSB, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Hospice, the International Film Festival, Civic Light Opera Association and Visiting Nurse Association.
Since the early 1990s, they have increasingly turned to international needs. They serve on the boards of Kids Can Free the Children, an organization started by Canadian brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger when they were teen-agers. Besides building schools, they train young people in leadership skills so they can become beacons of light and agents of change in their own countries. The Hallers also travel extensively for two organizations: Counterpart International, a leading partner with the State Department in the delivery of humanitarian assistance around the world, and Center for Defense Information, which independently researches the social, economic, environmental, political and military components of global security. They are pleased they have been able to connect Counterpart with Direct Relief International, which is based in Santa Barbara and performs similar humanitarian work around the world. The Jane Goodall Institute is one of their favorites, as are Women for Women International and Oceans Alert.
Their zeal for philanthropy is rooted in who they are. Yoel, a physician, and his late wife, Carola, were involved in many causes in San Francisco. Eva says: “I first got involved in philanthropy at 13 distributing anti-Hitler leaflets in Hungary.” She escaped Hungary right after World War II and came to the United States on a tourist visa. She earned a master’s degree in social work and founded Campaign Communications Institute of America in New York with her late husband, Murray Roman. Their firm pioneered the use of telemarketing in political campaigns in the late ‘60s and revolutionized the industry.
Today, “Yoel and I are in the ‘connection’ business,” Eva says. “Giving empowers me to empower them, and in the process, I am the one who gains.”