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Touched by Diana

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Slowly, cruelly, life is slipping away for Carissa Aggett. A lively, brown-haired 7-year-old, she suffers from Hurler’s Syndrome, a rare degenerative disorder that cripples the body’s ability to break down fat and sugars, gradually robbing its victims of their mental and physical powers. “She can say ‘hello’ and her brother’s name—Liam,” says her mother, Karen, an occupational therapist in the family’s hometown of Bridgend, Wales. “She used to be able to say the whole of ‘Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses’ but now she just says a few words. It’s another thing gone.”

Carissa is not expected to live past age 12, but Karen finds one small comfort amid her family’s anguish: thanks to the charity work of Princess Diana, a new hospice called Ty Hafan (Welsh for Haven House) is set to open near Cardiff in July, and there will be rooms, free of charge, for the Aggetts. “It will be a support,” says Karen. “It will enable me to have a break from the day-to-day care, and counselors will be on hand at the time of her death.” Had Diana not arranged for a Concert of Hope in Cardiff in June 1995—an event featuring Luciano Pavarotti that raised about $160,000 for Ty Hafan—the hospice would have opened much later. “That night wouldn’t have happened without her,” says Karen. “We owe her a lot.”

In this the Aggetts are far from alone. Five months after the death of the woman that British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed as “the people’s princess,” her tireless efforts on behalf of those less fortunate are still bearing fruit: from Chamba, India, where job training centers for leprosy patients are being built with the $640,000 Diana helped raise, to the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chicago, where about $350,000 in proceeds from her 1996 fund-raising trip will fund cutting-edge research, to an alternative London AIDS clinic, where patients receive massage and aromatherapy thanks to the $40,000 she brought in. As for a 1996 U.S. breast cancer benefit for which Diana helped raise $1.4 million, “she raised the visibility twice as much as it had been,” says Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Company. “People were more willing to give—and to give more.”

“Diana used her power just like a magic wand, waving it in all kinds of places where there was hurt,” says Debbie Tate, cofounder of Grandma’s House, a group of Washington homes for abused, abandoned and HIV-positive children, which was $100,000 richer after Diana hosted a 1990 fundraiser. “And everywhere she used it, there were changes—almost like a fairy tale.”

Indeed, while Britain’s royal family has always embraced philanthropy—Prince Charles is patron of 161 charities, the Queen, of 221—Diana, in the course of her 16 years as princess, transformed a family obligation into a phenomenally successful personal calling. “Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century,” says Stephen Lee, director of Britain’s Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers. The numbers bear him out: the sale last June of Diana’s dresses was the most profitable charity auction in the history of Christies’ New York, raising some $3.25 million for cancer and AIDS charities (“Sequins save lives” was the phrase Diana used in planning the event). In 1997 she joined the British Red Cross’s new campaign against land mines, and the group took in $1.6 million. Even in death she hasn’t lost her golden touch: the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund’s coffers (the contents of which will be distributed to still-to-be-selected charities beginning in March) are currently brimming at $56 million.

Talk to most of the people who benefited from Diana’s charity, though, and they mention not the money but her personal gestures—like the way she shook hands with a patient at the opening of Britain’s first AIDS ward in 1987 and helped dispel the myth of contagion through casual contact. (“Gay people idolized her for that,” says Ed Coates, an HIV-positive patient who receives treatment, thanks to proceeds from the dress auction, at the Landmark in London.) Or how, by traveling last year to Angola and Bosnia to campaign against land mines, she helped pave the way for the anti-land mine treaty signed by more than 120 nations in Ottawa. “No one,” says Ken Rutherford, a cofounder of the Landmine Survivors’ Network who accompanied Diana to Bosnia, “could bring attention to an issue like she could.”

Nor did she lack the common touch. Denise Stephenson, whose daughter Danielle, 9, has a heart ailment that mystifies her doctors, was struck by how down-to-earth Diana was when she paid a visit to Danielle’s room at London’s Royal Brompton Hospital in 1996. “When Danielle saw the princess was dressed casually—not wearing a crown or anything—she told her she wouldn’t curtsy,” says Denise. “I think Danielle’s cheekiness amused her.” The princess returned to visit again and again, lounging on Danielle’s bed to watch the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, sharing tidbits about her sons (“She said William was so tall he had trouble buying jeans to fit,” says Denise) and inviting Danielle and her family for tea at Kensington Palace. Today, says Denise, though Danielle “has seen death at the hospital, Diana’s death seems to have affected her even more deeply. She misses her friend.”

As do so many others. Thais Bispo dos Santos was just 3 when Diana visited her home, a São Paulo, Brazil, shelter for abandoned children with AIDS, in 1991. But “I still remember how clear her eyes were and how beautiful and shiny her necklace was,” says Thais, who fingered Diana’s pearls while the princess held her. “I remember thinking how happy I would be if she was my mother.” Diana’s powers didn’t extend that far, but afterward, prompted by Diana’s interest, the British consulate gave the shelter a station wagon. “It’s great to be able to spend more time in the city,” says Thais, now 10. Adds another shelter resident, Jurema Cintia da Silva, 11: “I just wish the princess could drive around with us and play with us again. The day I met her was the happiest day of my life.”

“Diana had this gift to be able to meet people and sit and listen,” says Roger Singleton, chief executive of Barnardo’s, a British charity for disabled and disadvantaged children. “When she went away, they were absolutely elated, transformed.” Some didn’t even know what hit them. “People who have operations aren’t themselves when they come around,” says designer Lana Marks, a friend. “There was this one gentleman she had consoled. The next morning when his surgeon came by, the man said, ‘Doctor, I’m going out of my mind! Last night I thought the Princess of Wales visited me.’ She thought it was quite funny.”

The 20-year-old who married Prince Charles in 1981 didn’t become a philanthropic power overnight. Coping with her new status, then with her sons, she first lent her name to charities without getting deeply involved. But she had enjoyed visiting the handicapped as a girl and in time began to do so again. “I pay attention to people, and I remember them,” she told France’s Le Monde newspaper last year. “Every meeting, every visit is special.” Given the state of her marriage, says royal reporter James Whitaker, “I think she got her affection and touching from the charity work because she wasn’t getting it at home.”

Victoria Hemphill, 14, who first met Diana when the princess visited London’s Harefield Hospital last February, remembers that “every time she’d come she’d give me a kiss on the cheek.” Like Danielle Stephenson, Hemphill, who suffers from heart and kidney ailments, may have provided the increasingly isolated princess with a sympathetic ear. “She used to talk about her boys and Charles. Although they were divorced, she called him ‘my husband.’ I think she still liked him. She said that when Harry and her and Charles were out, Harry would make them hold hands.”

Loneliness, though, was hardly the only reason charitable pursuits suited Diana, who set up a trust in her name in 1981 so she could donate her own money. “She had a generous, loving spirit,” says Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Liz Tilberis, a longtime friend. “It suddenly dawned on her that the minute she turned up at a fund-raiser, money was raised. However much she didn’t particularly want to get into her evening dress and make a speech, she was raising bucketloads doing it.” Indeed, Diana understood that playing the glamorous princess was paramount. “People watched,” says Lana Marks, “and she was always standing in receiving lines. One day [after a charity event], she said her dress had been so scratchy she wanted to giggle, wriggle her shoulders and writhe.”

That her mere presence opened so many well-lined pocketbooks sometimes brought out Diana’s self-deprecating humor—and raised even more money. Recalls her friend Jeffrey Archer: “Once, at an auction when we raised $160,000, she said, ‘If Jeffrey had his way, I’d sign this tablecloth and we’d get another $16,000.’ So I called out, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Her Royal Highness has agreed to sign this cloth!’ We got $17,600 for it. She was good at knowing the role she could play.”

By 1996, concentrating on the six charities closest to her heart—among them Centrepoint, a London group that aids homeless youths, and the Leprosy Mission—allowed her to become more closely acquainted with their work. At a breast cancer symposium during her 48-hour fund-raising blitz in Chicago in June 1996, “she spoke eloquently about breast cancer,” says Ann Lurie, widow of Robert Lurie, a philanthropist for whom Northwestern University’s cancer center is named. “There was a sense of, ‘She’s done her homework.’ ”

Alexandria Soriano, 13, a trauma patient who presented Diana with flowers at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, remembers other things. “Everything she had on matched, up and down,” she says. “And when I hugged her, it felt good.”

That trip (cosponsored by PEOPLE) raised $1.4 million, which was split among the Robert Lurie Center, London’s Royal Marsden Hospital and Gilda’s Club, the support group for cancer patients. (Ann Lurie later endowed a $1 million chair for cancer research in Diana’s name.) Says Tony Bennett, who performed at a gala dinner during her visit: “[At one point] she gave me a quick look like, ‘What’s going on here?’ because I don’t think she ever saw such an outpouring of love.” For James Swanson, 51, a brain tumor survivor, that outpouring translated into more classes—in ceramics and meditation—at New York City’s Gilda’s Club. “The club is a haven,” he says.

In her final year, her royal ties loosened by divorce, Diana was willing to take on a more politically charged cause. Her campaign against land mines brought a rebuke from one Tory politician, who called her a “loose cannon,” but it also got results—even after her death. Touched by media photos of landmine victim Sandra Txijica, 14, who sat on the princess’s lap during Diana’s visit to Angola in January, Australian photographer Peter Carrette tracked the girl down in September. Three months later, Sandra was navigating the muddy paths of her village on a $1,000 prosthetic leg bought by Carrette. “Not much in the grand scheme of things,” he says, “but it was satisfying.”

And Diana’s goodwill keeps working. The National Charities Information Bureau estimates that the princess is partly responsible for raising the total of U.S. charitable donations last year by 5 percent—”a hefty increase,” says bureau publicist Daniel Langan. And the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, though dogged by controversy since it was disclosed that the lawyers who run it are charging $800,000 for their services, is expected to grow by another $60 million from sales of the CD produced in Diana’s memory. A charity concert scheduled at Althorp on June 27 will also contribute. “Usually when a celebrity dies, within six months you hear very little of them,” says Edward Matthews, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy, for which Diana helped raise $2 million—twice the previous year’s take—during its annual banquet in 1995. “We’re just about at the point now, and you see no diminishing.” Just ask Grandma’s House co-founder Joan McCarley, who one recent day was busy watching four small, happy boys in a $240,000 brick house—bought in ’91 through Diana’s fund-raising. “She’s gone, but she’s like the gift that keeps on giving,” she says wistfully. “Her touch goes a long, long way.”