TODAY Gives Back features the charity and volunteer work of TODAY anchors. This week we speak with Kathie Lee Gifford about her involvement with the Association to Benefit Children, which is committed to bringing joy and warmth to disadvantaged children and their families through compassionate and comprehensive services designed to permanently break the cycles of abuse and neglect.
Kathie Lee and her husband Frank Gifford h
Question:What does the Association to Benefit Children do and what inspired you to get involved?
Kathie Lee: A better question is what don’t they do? The woman who runs it is named Gretchen Buchenholz. I met her when I first came to New York. I would do the variety telethons for all the local children who had all kinds of different problems. She was the first woman I ever met who held AIDS babies in her hands and wanted to love them into death. I know that sounds strange, but in the early '90s babies that were born with HIV and
I was so moved by her, that I knew I wanted to be more involved. So we ended up working with her on something that became known as Cody House, which was an old brownstone that we renovated, and it had a beautiful garden in the back. It was a memorial garden to all the little children that had literally been rocked until they took their last little breath. It was for infants, and nobody lived past that time. I’ll never forget what really did it for me. I remember holding my first AIDS baby in my one arm, and my 3-month-old son Cody in my other arm. The disparity and the injustice of my son being born healthy into prosperity, and this other little baby was just born. That’s all that it did. It didn't take intravenous drugs, it hadn't had unprotected sex, it was just born. It was born literally with no chance to survive. That just really affected me, and so Frank and I got more and more involved with Gretchen.
One day, we took her out to lunch and said we really want to do more. We now call it the most expensive lunch in history because she said, "Well, there is this place around the corner." It was an old Ronald McDonald House that she wanted to purchase, renovate and make into a home for the children who were now starting to survive and actually have hope in their lives. We as an organization had sued the State of New York to unblind HIV testing of pregnant women. It’s a little complicated, but this is why it is such a special place to me. We found out through all our work with the children at Cody House that if a mother found out she was pregnant, and she was given in utero a cocktail of AZT plus two other drugs, the chance of her having an HIV baby would go from 40 percent to less than 8 percent. I just thought, well, that’s wrong, why aren’t they unblinding these test results so these women and their doctor’s can get the information -- and therefore get the cocktail -- and not bring a child into the world to die? So, I was sitting next to Governor Pataki at a dinner party out in the Hamptons one night, and here’s a man I’m suing, and I told him why.
He sat there and listened to the whole spiel I just gave you. He looked at me, and he said something I’ve never heard a politician say. Number one, he said, "I didn’t know that." He admitted it. Number two, he said we’re on the wrong side of this issue. And number three, he said I’m going to do something about it.
Within one month, we were in the memorial garden at Cody House where Governor Pataki stood and mandated that the blinding of testing for women was now going to be made public only to the woman and only to her doctor. As a result, the next year was the first year the AIDS death rate went down in New York, because the AIDS birth rate went down. It was just about a year later that every state in the nation did the same thing. I want no credit for that, it was Gretchen’s organization that was filing the lawsuit, and it was Governor Pataki who had the political courage to do the right thing. I just happened to be used by God, I felt, to be at that dinner party with him as my dinner partner, and trust me, he wasn’t going to go anywhere for the two hours that I had him next to me. So, Cassidy’s Place is where those children went and started to thrive. Now, they don’t live there, they’re bussed in, and up to 200 children a day are there. Even though AIDS is not the same critical problem it once was during the epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s, still children that have incredibly fragile medical situations and home lives are there, and they’re precious children. They’re precious.
Question:I’m just kind of curious how your children feel about these schools named for them and what that does for them?
Kathie Lee Gifford: Well, Cody House was named for him when he was basically a year old or two, and Cassidy same thing. Frank and I didn’t want to name them after our children, because we felt that it was like patting ourselves on the back or something, and we didn’t want to do that. But it was Gretchen who said, “Kathie, we need all the publicity we can get for these children. You're going to get flak no matter what you do, so get it for a good reason.” So we agreed to do that at the time, not wanting to.
Only years later, as I saw our children get involved there, did I understand why. If you walk into Cassidy’s Place, there’s a portrait of Cass with a scripture underneath it that says, “Suffer the little children unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of God.” Ever since she could understand anything -- and same with Cody -- they understood that because they had been born in to privilege and prosperity, that they had an obligation to help those who weren’t and aren’t. They’ve always seen it as a great inspiration to them, to make sure that their lives matter more than just for themselves. I always say to them, God didn’t make you beautiful, make you talented and make you privileged for your glory; he made you that way for his. There’s a purpose for it, and to whom much is given much is required. They just get that. That’s the thing about children, if you share that kind of thing with them when they’re little, and you live by example, it goes right into their DNA.
Every time Cody comes home from college in California he’ll say, "Mom, I’m going to go to Cassidy’s Place today and see the kids.” He’ll spend all day long there. He’s a 21-year old kid -- I’m just thrilled about that. Cass brings her classmates, and they’ll go spend a day there. They don’t get there often, they’re very busy kids, and I get there very rarely, but we still support it in every way we can.
It doesn’t have the urgency it once did, but I hope it stands there forever as a testimony to Gretchen and the unsung angels of New York City. To those who took in AIDS babies when no one wanted to be associated with them, and the system was letting them fall through the cracks here in New York.
Interview conducted with Giacinta Pace, allDAY contributor.