Debbie Tate is president of TERRIFIC, a D.C. nonprofit that provides housing and human services to families in crisis. Joan McCarley is executive director of TERRIFIC. They are co-founders of Grandma’s House, a residential care home for children with HIV/AIDS.
People often ask whether the famous picture of Barbara Bush cuddling one of the babies at our care home for children with HIV/AIDS was staged by White House photographers or handlers. It was not. It was a caring grandmother’s genuine instinct to comfort and soothe a sick baby.
In 1989, as Bush toured our facility — known as Grandma’s House — we entered the room of little Donovan, who, in rapidly failing health and frailty, began to whimper in his crib. As we lifted Donovan, Bush turned and gave us that trademark look of confidence and said, “Debbie and Joan, you’re providing great care and services, but give me that baby. You don’t know what you are doing!”
She was masterful, placing the baby over her shoulder and closely caressing him. He immediately calmed.
It’s not every day that you receive a call from the White House requesting a visit from the first lady. Sure enough, it was a visit we will never forget.
During the 1980s, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was widely considered a death sentence — a stigmatized scarlet letter that ostracized victims and polarized friends, families and communities worldwide. Hundreds of children, including prenatally drug-exposed and HIV-infected infants, were abandoned to hospital wards because of the fear of transmission through tears, hugs or any touch of human tenderness. That is why we founded Grandma’s House.
Sadly, out of that fear, along with discrimination and a lack of knowledge, many saw the children as “untouchables.” Every form of discrimination was in practice; landlords refused to rent to us. And when the District’s Child and Family Services Agency and Department of Housing and Community Development helped us purchase homes for the children’s care, we couldn’t disclose the address or nature of the homes out of fear for the children’s well-being. As word leaked out about Grandma’s House, even the telephone installer was reluctant to provide service.
You can imagine what a shock it was for our neighborhood to see a motorcade, backed by the full force of the Secret Service, swoop onto our tiny urban street in the heart of Washington. As Bush exited the limo, escorted by the Secret Service agents, you could hear neighbors and locals gasping, “Is that Barbara Bush?”
In a matter of minutes, she entered the home with a personality as big, beautiful and commanding as her trademark silver hair. She greeted us as if she had always known us, saying, “Thank you for inviting me into your home. George and I want to thank you for what you are doing for the children.”
Just like that, no pretenses or airs — genuinely and motherly. She shared our love regarding the importance of children and grandchildren. She then proceeded into the play room, and insisted on sitting on the floor with the children.
It was there, on the floor, that she signaled to the world that regardless of health status — including HIV/AIDS — everyone deserves love and care.
And it wasn’t just children. The White House had approved of our request to invite a group of men living with HIV/AIDS to meet the first lady. After seeing the love Bush exuded holding a baby, one of the men asked: “Mrs. Bush I am a man living with AIDS. Will you give me a hug?” Sure enough, she reached out and hugged him without hesitation.
Looking back at that time, despite being the first lady and a woman of significant wealth, she was a risk-taker and a change agent, unafraid to utilize her considerable influence to change attitudes. At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, she single-handedly educated the world, saying that it is okay to support places such as Grandma’s House.
Sadly, not long after her visit, the beautiful chubby-cheeked baby she comforted to sleep died because of AIDS-related complications. But his living wasn’t in vain. Thanks to the spotlight Bush afforded us, we became an international model for 24-hour residential care for HIV-infected infants and children. Moreover, her influence resulted in a visit from Princess Diana — equally awing. Bush and Princess Diana also helped raise funds for our organization, enabling Grandma’s House to open other homes for needy children. A picture of Bush still hangs in our first Grandma’s House.
With much affection and love, we are eternally grateful and cherish a life well-lived and shared with others. As the Bush family lays her to rest, we hope everyone remembers her as the embodiment of a true grandmother.