Helene Gayle, director, CARE - December 2009 - Best of Atlanta - Atlanta Magazine

Helene Gayle, director, CARE


CARE, the Atlanta-based humanitarian organization, is not about Dr. Helene Gayle. But it’s Gayle, CARE’s director since early 2006, and her longtime public-health cred that have refocused the almost sixty-five-year-old nonprofit.

Gayle ran the CDC’s AIDS program for twenty years, then moved on to work on the disease for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When CARE came calling, Gayle wasn’t sure she was ready to leave Seattle and her work there—but then she remembered why she had gotten into public health. “Ill health has as much to do with economic status, social status in life—the things that we work on in CARE, whether it’s extreme poverty, gender inequality, marginalization, or stigma,” she says. “So coming to CARE was in many ways coming full circle, to the things that brought me into medicine to begin with.”

But Gayle insists CARE is more than just words, and a new emphasis on policy change—especially efforts to empower girls and women—looks to prove that. Earlier this year, Gayle testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about climate change. The organization is also working to eliminate maternal mortality, world hunger, and sexual violence. “We’ve moved very much from giving a person a fish, to teaching a person to fish, to actually figuring out why there are no fish in the stream to begin with,” says Gayle.

This past summer, President Obama called on the Buffalo native to chair his HIV/AIDS advisory council. First up: developing a national AIDS strategy, “something we really haven’t had,” she says. Interestingly enough, when Gayle first began at CDC, she was discouraged from working on AIDS—everyone thought it would be taken care of quickly. “Obviously, it became in many ways the defining public health issue of our time.”

But most gratifying for Gayle is seeing CARE’s work in action, such as when she traveled to Kenya to meet a group of grandmothers who are using the group’s support to bring up their orphaned grandchildren, whose parents had died from HIV/AIDS. “That’s what makes me get up every morning: knowing it is possible to have an impact on the lives of even the poorest of people around the world.” —Amanda Heckert