In the living room of her plush Manhattan apartment, Albina du Boisrouvray sits admiring the giant fertility totem that she believes watches over and protects her. You might think she found the statue—from Burkina Faso, an AIDS-ravaged country in sub-Saharan Africa—on one of her many world travels. But the French countess, a surprisingly modest protector of the world’s AIDS orphans, says it was merely a gift from a former New York landlord.  

Regardless, the totem symbolizes the ideals that du Boisrouvray, 66, champions. In 1989, she founded the nonprofit Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud (AFXB), using $100 million—three fourths of her inherited fortune—to launch programs providing housing and health care for parentless children throughout the world.

But don’t call her a philanthropist.

“OK, so I gave three fourths of [everything] I had to start AFXB, but that’s not where I stopped,” says du Boisrouvray, a former freelance journalist and producer of 22 French films. “I did that to get a tool, because I needed one to put the programs in the field.” Indeed, AFXB doesn’t just toss cash at the epidemic; it instills the fundamentals of self-reliance, what du Boisrouvray calls “pillars of support.” Her three-year program helps AIDS-affected families while teaching them to fend for themselves. In one African project, for example, an AFXB staff of only three—a social worker, a medical professional and a driver—tends to a community of about 500 people, 400 of whom are children. She estimates that roughly 80 percent of the makeshift families eventually will become self-sufficient.

“I’ve seen some women, after years of being unable to sustain themselves, who [go on to] make an amazing amount of money,” says du Boisrouvray.

Born in 1941, du Boisrouvray spent her early childhood on Fifth Avenue before her family resettled in Switzerland, where she married and had a son, Francois. He became a rescue pilot, but died at age 24, while on a mission in Mali, West Africa. Helping people, she says, “was really his big—and only—passion.” She founded AFXB to honor his memory.

Eighteen years into the countess’s own rescue mission, neither she nor AFXB shows signs of tiring. But she realizes, as her global family grows, that there’s only so much the group can accomplish without help from various governments. “The problems of AIDS are going to get worse,” she says, “if the world doesn’t pay attention to bringing up the next generation properly.”