By Nick Charles
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

As a haven for children from troubled homes, Harlem’s Hale House is usually abuzz with the coos, giggles and shrieks of more than 20 infants and toddlers. But on Christmas Day over a decade ago, it had grown still. All the children had been taken home for the night by volunteers or family members to share some holiday spirit. All save three. One, who was ill, would have to stay to be cared for. But Deborah Watts, a new volunteer, had her eye on the other two, 1-year-old fraternal twins Michael and Susan, who had been left at the center when their mother was jailed for drug use. “Please,” pleaded Watts, then 33, single and living at home with her mother, “can I take them home?”

As cautious as she is generous, Dr. Lorraine Hale, the guiding light of Hale House, asked where the children would sleep and what they would be fed. Satisfied by the answers and sensing that Watts had a special feeling for the infants, Hale gave her approval. Once again her instincts proved to be finely tuned. Two years later Watts, an accounts-receivable officer at a law firm, adopted the children. Another happy ending. “There is nothing better,” says Hale, 66, “than finding a home for these children.”

To reunite kids with mothers forced to give them up or, barring that, to find loving families to take them in, has been the primary mission of Hale House since it was founded in 1969 by Lorraine’s late mother, Clara. The nation’s first independent childcare agency, it has served as a temporary home to more than 3,000 children, none older than 6, and nearly all born to mothers addicted to drugs or alcohol or, increasingly, infected with HIV. Of those children, most stay just a few months, and half are returned to mothers who regain control of their lives. Almost 20 percent are adopted, and the rest are transferred to foster care. President and CEO since Clara’s death at 87 in 1992, Lorraine is as proud of the agency’s success as she is of its philosophy: Mother Hale always said no child should lack for attention or affection. “We believe in hugging and kissing and saying, ‘I love you,’ ” says Lorraine.

While seemingly simple and non-scientific, the marriage of constant affirmation with a wholesome diet that emphasizes organic foods and forbids sugars and fats has proved to be an international model. Groups from Chicago to Haiti have sought Hale’s advice and duplicated the center’s approach. “Using that concept of mothering to show what miracles love can accomplish, it opened up a whole new world,” says Debbie Tate, president and cofounder of Grandma’s House in Washington, D.C.

It also attracted prominent supporters—a key to survival since New York City stopped funding independent agencies in the early 1990s, choosing to augment foster-care programs instead. The move wiped out an annual $360,000 contribution to the Hale House operating budget, which reached $4.2 million last year. Relying mostly on private and corporate donations, Hale House also counts among its donors Donald Trump, Lena Home and filmmaker Spike Lee, who funded a playground for the center.

Far from faltering financially, Hale House has thrived. Aside from the two adjoining five-story brown-stones that are its headquarters, the agency has opened a nearby daycare center and is in the process of turning a onetime hospital into a community holistic health-care center. Jesse DeVore, Hale’s husband of 22 years, is proud of the growth but says success doesn’t come cheap. “We can talk of loving babies and compelling missions,” says DeVore, in his late 60s, the agency’s public relations director. “But in the final analysis, it’s a business.”

Born in Philadelphia but raised in New York City, Lorraine learned to balance businesslike purpose and tender affection from her mother. One of three children (brother Nathan, 69, is an accountant and brother Kenneth, 57, a high school principal), she was diagnosed with a heart condition as an infant and enjoyed her mother’s constant attention. But when Lorraine’s father, Thomas, who started his own floor-waxing business, died of cancer in 1942, Clara Hale turned to babysitting to support the family.

After high school Lorraine taught first grade while taking night classes at Fordham University and later at City College of New York. Earning master’s degrees in special ed and psychology and a Ph.D. in early child development, she eventually became a school psychologist. She wasn’t about to fail. “My mother loved me too much—I couldn’t hurt her,” she says.

Despite her love of children, Hale never wanted any herself. “It had been so difficult,” she says of her mother’s life. “My father died and my mother was left to take care of us. It was a constant struggle.” But she overcame her initial reluctance to marry after she and DeVore met in a church choir. “She was a soprano and I was a bass,” says DeVore, who has a grown daughter from a previous marriage. When Lorraine introduced DeVore to her mother, he saw immediately that she deferred to Clara. “Lorraine was like a kid behind her mother’s coattails,” he says.

Even so, Lorraine was instrumental in the creation of Hale House. She was in her car waiting for a light to change when she spied a woman with a baby sitting on a box at the curb. Recognizing the woman as an addict she had seen before, Hale stopped and told her to go to Clara’s house if she needed help with the baby. While her mother was skilled at nurturing, Lorraine proved to be adept at the administrative details, eventually hiring fulltime staff, finding volunteers and seeking donors. Since Clara’s death, Lorraine has also hired a nutritionist, begun an international intern program and brought in a homeopathic doctor. “She has reshaped the agency in her own image,” says DeVore.

And yet, whenever she crawls on the floor after a toddler or nuzzles an infant left behind by a drug-addicted mother, Lorraine recalls the vital lessons her mother taught her. “She left such a legacy of love,” she says. So too, it seems, will Lorraine.