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A Talk with the Governor

Personal passion: Kathie Lee Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford devotes much of her time to the Assn. to Benefit Children, which helps thousands of children break the cycle of abuse, sickness, neglect and homelessness. ABC spawned the Cody Foundation, which is the Gifford family foundation.

“Early on, I wanted to make sure that I loaned my name to what was legitimate,” says Gifford. “I didn’t want to be all over the map with a million different causes.

“That’s why we started Cody House (named after our son Cody) and Cassidy’s Place (named after our daughter Cassidy) in New York City.

“I was already working with a woman named Gretchen Buchenholz, who founded the Assn. to Benefit Children during the time of the AIDS scourge in New York. It was a townhouse on East 91st Street that was housing infants, AIDS and crack-addicted infants.

“Gretchen was the first person I saw who was cradling AIDS babies, rocking them, caring for them because they slipped through the cracks of the federal services. Nobody wanted to deal with them. Nobody wanted them on their block.

“The more we got involved in one thing, the more moved we were to do more. We were suing the state of New York for ‘blinding’ HIV testing. Testing was mandated by the state, but the test results were kept secret (the results were kept only for tracking the HIV epidemic, but the info was not provided to the mothers).

“One night, Gov. Pataki and I sat at dinner, and I had a chance to tell him that the chance of a child developing the AIDS virus went from 40% to less than 8% if the pregnant mother got the right combination of in-utero drugs. He said something that you rarely hear politicians say: ‘I didn’t know that. We’re on the wrong side of this issue.’ And then he said, ‘I’m going to do something about this.’

“Within about a month, he mandated that all HIV testing be unblinded in the state of New York. Within one year, the AIDS death rate went down. Because the AIDS birth rate went down. About a year later every state in the country mandated the unblinding as well.

“Because of all the research that’s gone on and all the advances we’ve made in the care of these children, they’re still medically fragile but they’re not dying at a young age. So, now the problem we had was: Where do we put them?

“Gretchen told us that there was this piece of property, a former Ronald McDonald House, they were selling. Long story short, we went and saw it. Fast-forward to Cassidy’s House being built about two years later for about $7 million. It’s state-of-the-art and one of the few in the country that is six stories and takes care of about 150-200 children.”

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