February 28, 1994 12:00 PM

PEOPLE READERS RAVE A REPUTATION for responding to those in need. When we ran a story about Bosnian relief efforts last year, 160 readers wrote in to ask not merely how they could help but how they could adopt the orphans pictured in our pages. Last month, after we reported on six Amish families whose barns were destroyed by an arsonist, 40,000 letters and donations flooded their tiny Belleville, Pa., post office. It’s that kind of altruism that has inspired PEOPLE First, an umbrella organization we’ve launched in conjunction with our 20th birthday to help charities with particular significance to our readers. “Our involvement with each began with a story—usually one that people responded to overwhelmingly,” says PEOPLE president Ann Moore.

One of PEOPLE’S best-loved cover stories was our tribute to Gilda Radner after her untimely 1989 death from ovarian cancer. Three years later, Moore linked up with Gilda’s husband, Gene Wilder, and her psychotherapist Joanna Bull to jump-start Gilda’s Club, a support organization for cancer victims and their families scheduled to open in Manhattan later this year. PEOPLE has also joined forces with 1980 cover subject Paul Simon and pediatrician Irwin Redlener, founders of the Children’s Health Fund, which sends mobile medical vans to provide care for poverty-stricken kids who wouldn’t otherwise receive it. And finally, one o( the most moving covers of the 16 PEOPLE has devoted to AIDS was activist Elizabeth Glaser’s 1991 account of the disease that she and her family have valiantly battled since 1985. “Working together with the PEOPLE team will mean we’ll be able to get our message out to a lot more people,” says Susie Zeegen, who co-founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation with Glaser and Susan DeLaurentis in 1988. “Educating the public is what is needed.”

Besides donating $3 million in advertising space, PEOPLE has commissioned silk tics and scarves for each charity, to be sold in stores and through our pages. We’ve also called upon dozens of celebrities—ranging from Sharon Stone to Colin Powell—to autograph museum-quality prints of photos that have appeared in the magazine; the pictures are available for $300 each, through ads in PEOPLE and at special fund-raising events, with the money going to PEOPLE First charities.

“There are a lot of Mother Teresas running around the country,” says Moore. “If you contribute to PEOPLE First, your money really goes to the bottom line.” Wilder knows. So far, PEOPLE readers have donated $300,000 to Gilda’s Club. “I used to say to myself, ‘I don’t know if Gilda’s Club is going to happen,’ ” he says. “But if you walk the halls with Ann, she says, ‘We’ll do it.’ I know now that we will.”

(For further information, write to: Frankie Whelan, PEOPLE First Manager, P.O. Box 7, Radio City Station, New York, New York 10101-0007.)

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