CARE's Envoy to the Powerful and the Poor

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Physician Helene Gayle may have been born with a gift for empathy. It was the trait that was nurtured by her family and has guided her work on child malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and diseases among the poor.

Her ability to connect with presidents and prostitutes and her focus on social inequities will serve her well as the new president and chief executive of CARE USA, the international humanitarian organization that fights poverty.

She is a child of the civil rights movement whose father ran a barber and beauty supply business for African Americans in the heart of Buffalo's black community. On Sundays, Jacob Gayle Sr., now deceased, would drag his five children to visit the elderly and the infirm, she recalled.

"The idea of doing something bigger than yourself is something you grew up with in my family in those times," said Gayle, who is in town to attend a gala this evening commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first 20,000 CARE packages reaching World War II survivors in Europe.

Gayle developed a fascination for social causes and their heroes -- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Local Black Panthers came by her father's shop to stock up on products not found in general stores. He ran his business "philanthropically, more as a community service," she said in an interview Monday.

Her mother, Marietta, was a social worker who made friends easily and often brought foreign students home to dinner to expose her children to other cultures.

But Gayle's active young life changed when, in seventh grade, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle. She was hospitalized for three months and spent six months in a body cast at home. "When I was at home recovering, the solitary experience gave me a chance to be introspective," she said.

The following year her parents separated. Because her mother had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital for recurring bouts of mental illness, the family shuttled among several cities, with Gayle and her siblings staying with different relatives, changing schools, learning to survive in new places.

"One of the things this taught me was to keep moving despite the challenges," she said. Her mother's condition, which she had kept private, gave her a natural sense of caring for people going through difficult situations.

In her mind, medicine was the field that could best take care of inequities, diseases and other basic problems. "Pediatrics and health care seemed like a concrete way to do that," said Gayle, 50, who trained at Barnard College and at Children's Hospital in Washington.

Even when she was still training in emergency rooms as a young intern, she said, she was curious about how to have a broader impact. "How do you heal a population rather than just individual patients?" she recalled asking herself.

She spent nearly 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director of its National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. For the past five years, she was director of the Gates Foundation's HIV, TB, and Reproductive Health program.

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