Magazine Features


Mother Clara Hale, noted for her work with drug, alcohol, and AIDS infected infants, shares a happy time with some children as she celebrates her 83rd birthday on April 4, 1988.

Mother’s Day is a time to reflect on the love and commitment of mothers. Highlighted here are four women who have made a lasting impression on their families and communities. (See below)

Clara McBride Hale

For some women, the mission of motherhood takes on broader and deeper meaning. Their life experiences make them extraordinarily empathetic to the pain and suffering of other mothers and children. Such compassion informs their unique worldview, their unusual capacity to love, and their passion for finding solutions. Clara McBride Hale was such a woman.

Clara was born in North Carolina in 1905. After her dad’s sudden death, her mom moved the family to Philadelphia, Pa.

Clara grew up, got married, had two children, and adopted a third. Her husband moved the family to New York City, but he lost his battle with cancer when Clara was 27.

Through the Great Depression, Hale raised and supported her children, working as a domestic by day and a janitor by night.

In 1943, Hale opened a daycare in her home. It grew from a short–term to a long–term care facility. She also took care of foster children. In 1969, Her work began with homeless, unwanted babies of drug–addicted mothers.   

In her lifetime, Hale helped save the lives of as many as 550 children who might have become casualties of the two–decade cocaine and heroin epidemic that plagued the United States. In the process, she walked a difficult road.

Against all odds

By 1983, 28,000 women had succumbed to drug–addiction in New York City alone. Close to 26,000 of them were of childbearing age. More than 50,000 of their children were born chemically dependent. These children were also at high risk of acquiring AIDS from their mothers during pregnancy.

In New York State, there were about 250,000 addicts. At least 450,000 were users of cocaine, with one out of every 20 people over the age of 12 involved in drugs.

Today, such people are officially known to suffer from “Substance Use Disorder.” But in the 1980s, rather than declare their situation a national health crisis, society deemed it a crime wave that was sweeping the nation. Mass incarceration and benign neglect of poor minorities became the response, rather than the implementation of well–funded addiction treatment and mental health programs. 

Against this unfortunate backdrop, Hale persevered. Affectionately and appropriately called “Mother,” the gray-haired little lady served drug victims in a manner reminiscent of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Some of the children born going through withdrawal were literally placed on Hale’s doorstep.

Ultimately, with the help of Percy Sutton, then Manhattan Borough President, and other community leaders, Hale secured a $150,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to renovate a five–story brownstone on W. 122nd St. in Harlem.

Hale moved her own apartment furniture into the building and personally financed the decorations. She carefully spent the grant on vital areas of need. Eventually, there were 58 children under her care during the day.

After the OEO funds expired, the Hale House Center for the Promotion of Human Potential Inc., as it was known, became a victim of severe cutbacks of state and city funds. Public agencies with competitive services repeatedly harassed the center.

Faith and friends

Successfully supported by individuals, churches, and community groups, Hale House nonetheless became unique in its format and demonstrated a sharp contrast to public agencies for the care of children. Hale’s daughter, Dr. Lorraine E. Hale, became the program director. Well credentialed, she held a doctorate in child development from New York University.

In the the program’s early days when funds for food and supplies were few and meeting payroll was a constant challenge, Clara Hale’s personal faith in Christ and the love and active concern of ordinary people were her only reliable sources of strength and support. They brought her disposable diapers, formula, and other items that were in constant demand.

One notable admirer spent more than two years, off and on, trying to track down Hale because no one among his circle of friends knew her name. Finally, John Lennon found her and sent a check for $10,000. “He came with his wife and son and spent time with the children,” Hale had said.

After Lennon’s tragic death the following year, Yoko Ono, his wife, sent more gifts, including a check for $20,000, which arrived every year thereafter.

One morning, another fan made her way to Hale’s doorstep. As she emerged from a black limousine, the usual paparazzi who typically pressed for pictures were elsewhere. This was a private visit, for sure. Nonetheless, the presence of Princess Diana made it a royal and memorable one.

As the princess stood at the top of the brownstone stairs, she lovingly held a baby in her arms. “Thank you for the work you’re doing here for these children,” she said to Mother Hale.

“People have been marvelous,” said the perpetually optimistic Hale. Her faith in God and humanity continued to grow, despite opposition. In 1984, her outstanding work appeared as the cover story of the Salvation Army’s War Cry magazine.

Following Hale’s death at age 87, Hale House lost its way for a time. It fell into financial scandal, which led to a complete housecleaning of its administration.

Hale’s legacy continues

Today, Hale House continues as the Mother Hale Learning Center. It is now part of a larger network of community healthcare providers. It offers educational day care for 36 kids and a transitional housing program that has helped 161 homeless families and 297 children get back on their feet in the past four years, Hale House officials said.

“Hale House’s mission, to provide child–centered family–focused programs to those in need, hasn’t changed and never will,” said Executive Director Randy McLaughlin.

On February 6, 1985, at the close of the State of the Union message to Congress, President Ronald Reagan turned to Mrs. Clara Hale, seated at the side of the first lady, Mrs. Reagan, and recognized “Mother Hale” for helping babies of drug–addicted mothers in Harlem, N.Y.

The president said to members of Congress and to all America, “go to her house some night and maybe you’ll see her silhouette against the window as she walks the floor, talking softly, soothing a child in her arms. Mother Hale of Harlem, she too is an American hero.”

by Warren L. Maye

To read about the other ‘Mothers’, click below:

A Home for All

For close to three decades, the home of Rosemary St. Denis and her husband Bruno has been known by Ontario County, N.Y. as a welcoming foster home to children from neglected households or with special needs.


Grace Eisenhart will probably have a difficult time keeping her Mother’s Day cards straight this year.

A Tribute

Major Virginia Downing, who is retired after 42 years as a Salvation Army officer, is still very active at the Oil City, Pa., Corps. Some of the people who know her best commented on her as a mother, Salvationist, and person.

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