Former L.A.-based stay-at-home mom Countess Karen Spencer never set out to carry on the legacy of the planet’s most beloved princess – but that’s exactly what she’s doing, says her husband Earl Charles Spencer, the younger brother of Princess Diana.
“Like Diana, she gets her hands dirty with causes that other people might quietly walk away from,” Charles tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview in this week’s issue. “What my sister did for people with HIV/AIDS, the homeless and those suffering from leprosy, Karen is doing, fighting for orphans and abandoned kids.”
Now the countess – whose nonprofit, Whole Child International is changing the lives of children living in Third World orphanages – and her husband are opening up Althorp, the 508-year-old Spencer family estate where Diana spent part of her childhood, in a fundraising effort for the charity.
In the coming months the couple will host 20 benefactors at Althorp for a traditional English country weekend, complete with a black-tie dinner. (Starting price: $25,000.) In addition, they will offer a similar weekend at the estate for six small donors, including those who solicit donations from the largest number of friends, family and others – and for the winners of a 90-second video, 500-word essay contest.
“Weekends at Althorp are one of my favorite things about living in England,” says Spencer, 44, who grew up in a succession of Canadian national parks [her father managed them for the government] and was previously married to a successful Hollywood producer while raising their two daughters in Los Angeles.
In 2010, she was set up on a blind date with Earl Spencer and the two, who now have a three-year-old daughter, Charlotte Diana, were married 10 months later.
But years before meeting Charles, Spencer had begun making a name for herself through her crusade to improve the quality of life for some of the world’s most vulnerable children. (The Dalai Lama has called her work “extremely important.”)
“There’s a need and demand for our work,” says the countess of Whole Child’s relationship-focused approach for kids and caregivers. “And governments really want our help because we are offering a doable solution.”
Spencer had long been interested in child development, but when her first marriage crumbled in 2003, she began immersing herself in the innovative child-rearing philosophy of Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler and traveling to more than 100 orphanages in 15 developing nations around the world.
“Appalled” by what she saw – neglected infants, she says, spent their days in empty toy-less rooms or locked away in cribs and cages with little human contact – Spencer set out to change things.
Inside the Revered Althorp Estate in England
She began meeting with experts in the field to create a program to transform existing orphanages into “nurturing places,” as she says, such as the revolutionary facility Pikler ran for decades that produced happy, outgoing adults, simply by retraining caregivers to focus on the developmental and emotional needs of each child under their care.
In 2004, she started Whole Child and began plowing all of her divorce settlement into the charity, which eventually launched a multi-year study – in partnership with Duke University’s Global Health Institute and the Inter-American Development Bank – at six orphanages in Nicaragua.
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The results have been impactful,with Whole Child now expanding into 365 facilities in El Salvador – and currently fielding requests to launch their program in a handful of other countries in Asia and Africa.
“Just by changing their environment,” Spencer says, “we’ve been able to increase the children’s height by 47 percent, their weight by 37 percent and reduce the number of children who scored as though they were intellectually disabled by nearly 60 percent – without any additional cost to the centers.”
Money raised from the current campaign will help Whole Child expand their program into additional countries, something Spencer’s famous sister-in-law would have no doubt applauded.
“I’d like to think that we would have shared a passion,” Spencer says of Princess Diana, who died in 1997. “Her commitment to children was unbelievable and her ability to create change and awareness is a really wonderful thing to look up to.”