Suzanne Roberts to donate $2M to aid Native Americans

Suzanne Roberts still hosts her TV talk show, still offers insight and information on everything from ballet to breast cancer.

But at 93 she has something on her mind, an experience she had nearly 50 years ago.

In the summer of 1969, a time when astronauts walked on the moon and hippies danced at Woodstock, Roberts and her family headed west, volunteering to help impoverished American Indians on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

Everyone in the family was given a job. Hers was helping withdrawn mental-health patients. The impact of those encounters never diminished, shaping her interests and work.

“I’m sort of coming to the end of my life,” Roberts said in an interview. “I can really be helpful to people like this.”

On Friday in Baltimore, she will be honored at Johns Hopkins University, where she is giving a $2 million gift that will establish the Suzanne Roberts Native American Dream Fund at the school’s Center for American Indian Health.

Her goal, said Roberts, the wife of Comcast cofounder Ralph Roberts and the mother of company CEO Brian Roberts, is for every child to have a chance at the American dream.

Roberts’ donation ranks among the largest ever received by the center, which runs 12 health stations on the Navajo, White Mountain Apache, San Carlos Apache, and New Mexico Pueblos reservations.

“Our vision,” said center associate director Allison Barlow, “is to work in communities where we’re trusted, demonstrate impact, and scale the programs to [expand to] other communities.”

The United States is home to 5.2 million Indians and Alaska Natives, people whose health, living conditions, and job prospects are often abysmal. Poverty rates are among the nation’s highest, with those of Indians living on reservations the highest of all.

Indians live four fewer years than the average American. They die at much greater rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (368 percent higher), diabetes (177 percent), homicide (82 percent), and suicide (65 percent higher), according to the federal Indian Health Service.

The center works on what can seem like insoluble problems. Its programs include school gardens to grow healthy food and a celebration-of-life effort to prevent suicide, along with initiatives to reduce substance abuse and help young mothers.

Real change has occurred, Barlow said. For instance, center efforts have helped to nearly eliminate disparities in infectious-disease rates between Indians and the general populace.

“The challenges are huge,” Barlow said, “but if you can devise solutions, they’re transportable to other places.”

It was Dr. Mathuram Santosham, the center founder and director, whose work with Indians helped prove the efficacy of what’s now called Pedialyte. It prevents infant deaths from diarrhea and vomiting by restoring lost fluids and is credited with saving millions of lives in developing lands.

In 1980, as a young Johns Hopkins pediatrician, Santosham moved with his wife and two children to the White Mountain Apache Reservation, helping colleagues reduce childhood deaths. He meant to stay a year.

But as he and others made progress on saving children, the Apache and neighboring tribes sought assistance in new areas, such as preventing diabetes and alcohol abuse. After six years, Santosham returned to the university School of Public Health, his goal to help tribes by marshalling the skill and experience at Johns Hopkins. In 1991 the center was formally established.

Roberts’ gift “is going to provide support across all the projects that we work on,” said Novalene Goklish, a center senior research program coordinator who was born, raised, and works on the White Mountain Apache reservation in northeast Arizona.

The center has hired and helped train more than 50 Indians to work in their communities, where they can bridge barriers of culture and language while drawing on Johns Hopkins experts.

Goklish oversees the mental-health program, doing hands-on work in suicide prevention, crucial in places where young Indians take their lives at rates three times the national average.

“We’re tribal members,” she said, “and we’re able to reach out and make a difference in people’s lives.”

That’s what Roberts wants. She’s known in Philadelphia, her hometown, as host of Seeking Solutions With Suzanne, and for having worked as an actress, director, and producer. She’s been a leader in efforts to help children and young people.

To help Indian peoples, she said, is “sort of like a dream coming around.”

Until that 1969 trip, she said, she and Ralph always took their children on fun vacations, such as to Disneyland. But that summer they wanted their five kids, then ages 9 to 19, to see a different side of life, to understand that not everyone had all they needed and that they should try to help.

On the reservation, Ralph Roberts advised small-business owners, while the kids’ jobs included selling snacks at the rodeo.

Suzanne Roberts worked with people who were emotionally disturbed, and she discovered ways to communicate with them. She later was invited back to share her techniques with the hospital staff.

Roberts later earned a master’s degree in human services and therapeutic counseling at Antioch University in Ohio, and worked at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Hahnemann University Hospital.

Today, her Rittenhouse Square home is furnished in Indian arts, a row of Hopi kachina dolls standing guard on the fireplace, and on a wall a burden basket into which visitors are invited to deposit their troubles.

“I have never forgotten the Navajo children and families that I had the chance to work with that summer,” Roberts said. “It became my passion, and helped to define me as a person. It was one of the great privileges of my life.”