Local Man, Global Mission

Philanthropist Ray Chambers was appointed Special Envoy for malaria by the United Nation Secretary General in 2008, but he hasn't forgotten his humble Newark beginnings.

If Ray Chambers was jetlagged, it did not show. The 67-year-old philanthropist, appointed Special Envoy for malaria by the United Nations Secretary General in 2008, had arrived home from a six-day trip to Africa the day before. Now, sitting at his foundation offices in Morristown, he was, as usual, impeccably and formally dressed. Calm. Focused.

The trip was one of many the Newark native had made since joining the fight against malaria four years ago. This time, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he had seen people living in deplorable conditions. But the disease’s fearful toll was ebbing: more than $3 billion had been raised since 2008 to buy insecticide-treated bed nets, which are intended to protect people from the mosquito that carries the malaria parasite.

Tall and handsome in a 1960s leading-man sort of way, Chambers downplays his role in the achievements. “It’s one thing to go to Africa for a week,” Chambers says. “There are so many people who are there ministering, full time, quietly and unheralded.”

And yet his contribution—applying business skills to a social problem, structuring solutions, negotiating new partnerships, drawing on his large and influential networks—is vintage Chambers. He has been operating that way since 1989 when, after amassing a fortune through leveraged buyouts, he quit Wall Street. Chambers had scored big in the moneymaking game. But making money had not made him happy.

“I really think he is one of the most extraordinary men on the planet,” says Kevin Ryan, a former New Jersey child-welfare official who worked for Chambers for a time. “He’s one of these people who can make things happen, and not just because he has vast resources. He’s an unbelievably merciful person, a deeply spiritual person. Eliminating children’s deaths through malaria is one of the most powerful callings in his life.”

Chambers has been active in philanthropy for more than twenty years, starting small in Newark in 1983 and later moving to the national stage. With Colin Powell, he co-founded America’s Promise Alliance, to promote programs serving youth. He also co-founded the National Mentoring Partnership. After 9/11, he expanded into global concerns, chiefly through the U.N.’s Millennium Promise, which aims to reduce extreme poverty, hunger, and disease worldwide by 2015.

His special interest in malaria developed after he saw two photos at a friend’s office. One depicted a cherubic baby, appearing to be blissfully asleep. The other showed a group of toddlers lying in a row on mats, as if it were nap time. Chambers, a grandfather of five, remarked on their beauty. “You don’t understand,” he was told, “they’re all in malaria comas.” They all subsequently died.

Chambers could not erase the images from his mind. He knew that, though preventable, malaria killed nearly 1 million a year, mostly children in Africa. “I knew these insecticide-treated nets could prevent deaths, so I said, ‘Would you mind if I concentrated on malaria?’” he recounts.

To raise funds and awareness, Chambers created another nonprofit, Malaria No More, and drew in media executive Peter Chernin.

Obsessively private, Chambers prefers to work quietly and behind the scenes. A Wall Street Journal reporter who profiled him in a 1992 article reported that Chambers gave him background information “only because this reporter, at Mr. Chambers’s suggestion, once spent five months assisting in a weekend tutoring program he sponsored.”

Chambers initially focused his charitable work on Newark, the city where he grew up amid humble circumstances. Chambers had fond memories of the old neighborhood and of Rutgers-Newark, where he studied accounting.

His first beneficiary was the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newark. Troubled by the lack of self-esteem in many local kids, he established a foundation to provide cultural enrichment and college scholarships for 1,000 Newark children—and took some under his own wing. Then, to help spark a revival downtown, he pledged a significant sum of his own money for a new performing arts center and persuaded others to donate.

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened in 1997. The following year Chambers became the principal investor in a group that purchased the New Jersey Nets basketball team, with the intention of moving it to a new arena in Newark. They created the YankeeNets, a conglomerate incorporating the Nets and the New York Yankees. When the arena project stalled, Chambers dissolved YankeeNets and sold his interest in the Nets. The Prudential Arena eventually opened in 2007.

Of all the causes Chambers has embraced, eradicating malaria has proved the most consuming. Last year, he spent only one week at his retreat in the Arizona desert, one of his and wife Patti’s four homes. (The others are in New Vernon, Manhattan, and California.) But he has not forgotten Newark, according to Al Koeppe, a former president of PSE&G who runs Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that Chambers funds. “He’s a Newark kid,” Koeppe says. “He’s as involved as he’s ever been.”

In 2008, his foundation, MCJ Amelior, (named for the first initials of his three children and run by his oldest daughter, Christine) spread $14.8 million among hundreds of recipients across the country, including dozens of Newark institutions.

Rejuvenating the city remains a challenge. “We realize that Newark will never be what it was, and the definition of what it could be, and will be, is changing,” he says.

Still, the effort is fulfilling.

“I’m more convinced now than ever,” says Chambers, “that the most direct route to happiness is in service to others.”

Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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