By Ann McMaster
Avid travelers, professor James Lebovic and Holly Gill, have visited most of the Caribbean islands and many Central and South American countries over three-plus decades of marriage. With each trip, their love for the region and its people grew steadily stronger as did their desire to help alleviate the acute levels of basic need they encountered everywhere. Taking things into their own hands—literally— they began direct aid projects in several communities that have flourished and grown over the years.
Now, their record donation will evolve and institutionalize their work: the new Gill-Lebovic Center for Community Health in the Caribbean and Latin America will leverage the relevant research, expertise and experience in GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and across the university, creating a permanent legacy of improved health outcomes in the region.
Their impact began by helping animals in developing countries: vacations became volunteer missions, tourism turned into toil. Gill, a successful established Northern Virginia veterinarian, knew her healing hands could improve the lives of animals and by extension, people. Many pet diseases, including rabies, which is endemic in parts of the region, are transmissible to humans.
Gill and Lebovic traveled to countries in Latin America where veterinary services are virtually nonexistent, holding clinics to offer pro bono surgical care, treatments and vaccines. Transporting with them all required equipment and supplies, including anesthesia equipment designed for military use, Gill strove to replicate the high standard of care she provided to her U.S. patients. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, particularly tugged at their heartstrings because of the people’s industrious spirit in the face of dire hardships. Leveraging an ad-hoc network of in-country contacts, Gill and Lebovic set up operations in 2016 in the rural south of that country, returning multiple times a year with their team.
Hanging fluid bags from trees, Gill would set up in whatever driveway or open space would serve as the day’s designated surgical theater before an audience of locals and barking dogs. When the steady parade of dozens of dogs and a few felines stretched past sundown, she often would finish operations wearing a headlamp for light. Many animals arrived in the arms of children that loved them, occasionally in wheelbarrows or by donkey, and leashes a rarity. Cats typically were transported in rice bags.
Gill described the long, chaotic days of practicing veterinary medicine in uncontrolled situations as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” yet the missions provided both of them a deep satisfaction that they were accomplishing something truly important in life. Their compassion drove personal involvement far beyond the clinics to sponsorship of a goat cooperative and a fish farm in Haiti, a post-earthquake food distribution network, even paying school tuition and purchasing shoes, school uniforms and backpacks for some of the children they grew close to over the years.
When they considered their estate plans, they wanted a way for their work to outlive them. The Milken Institue SPH offered intriguing opportunities to build on existing faculty research and service underway in the region that would further their impact.
“We knew that it would be difficult for the veterinary work to continue after we are gone because you need an active presence,” said Lebovic. “It seemed natural to do something with public health. Our primary interest is in community health programs that link to local organizations in these countries and can provide an immediate, direct return.”
Veterinarian Holly Gill's work with animals in Latin America led her to the record donation from her and GW professor James Lebovic.
Gill is particularly passionate about women’s issues based on extensive observation of the disproportionate division of manual labor that unfairly burdens females and her concern that many lack safety.
Once Gill sold her practice in Alexandria, Virginia, the couple was in a position to supplement their magnanimous bequest and accelerate the timeline with funding that will allow for immediate establishment of the center. The opportunity to see something in their lifetimes and discuss their vision with the GW scientists involved was appealing, noted Lebovic.
“We are thrilled with this generous gift that will allow us to launch the Gill-Lebovic Center for Community Health in the Caribbean and Latin America,” said Lynn R. Goldman, the Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Milken Institute SPH. “This novel interdisciplinary center will boost the work of faculty who are committed to working with communities in the Caribbean and Latin American region. The center will conduct research to identify opportunities to improve health outcomes, train students and health professionals and create sustainable models for healthier communities in the region now and in the future.”
According to Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz, a Milken Institute SPH associate professor and native of Puerto Rico with existing projects in the Caribbean, the Gill-Lebovic Center uniquely is focused on the health of communities across the region, not a specific health issue or country.
“An integrated community-based approach and our in-depth understanding of the region sets us apart,” Rodriguez-Diaz said. “We don’t work in silos. We understand the community and its needs first, then partner with them to build solutions with research or service. Most researchers bring an idea that already has funding that they need to use to the community instead. Our solutions are sustainable because we facilitate community ownership in the process.”
Lebovic, known by students and colleagues alike for being “hysterically funny” and his “deadpan sense of humor,” will celebrate his 40th year at GW at the end of the semester. A professor of political science and international affairs, his specialty is national and international security and methodology.
“Giving back to GW was important to me,” Lebovic said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve had a great career, with great colleagues. . .but don’t tell them that. So, when it came time to think about a gift, I picked the institution, and Holly picked the cause—the health area was important to her.”
Lebovic underscores that they both came from working class families that placed enormous emphasis on education, and they view their gift and legacy as honoring both sets of parents. His parents arrived in America as refugees owning nothing, his father a Holocaust survivor speaking limited English who worked as a mechanic seven days a week. The family saved every penny: no restaurant meals or birthday gifts, noted Lebovic. Gill’s mother, a registered nurse, was a lifelong role model for charitable deeds, working with the Red Cross and other charities and spending off hours providing free health care for their Alabama neighbors, steel mill workers from Appalachia.
“We see the Gill-Lebovic Center as honoring our parents and think it would please them enormously to know their names live on this way,” said Lebovic.
Donna Arbide, vice president of development and alumni relations, cites Gill and Lebovic as shining examples that shatter outdated stereotypes of philanthropists. ”Philanthropy literally means ‘love of mankind’,” said Arbide, adding that animals are generally included in the definition. “We are so thankful for Jim and Holly’s love for animals, for GW and for the people of the Caribbean and Latin America, and honored that they entrusted us to continue their legacy of hard work and desire to change the world for the better.”
Help make a difference in better health outcomes in the Caribbean and Latin America with your gift to this innovative new center for community health.