Cécile Noël would rather comfort a ten-year old Nicaraguan boy with a hole in his heart than attend a board meeting.

“When he came at the beginning of the week, the boy had a cough and a runny nose so he couldn’t be evaluated for treatment because you can’t intubate someone who isn’t feeling well,” she says. “When he came back three days later, he was crying ‘I want to go home.”

Noël helped that boy this past January through Project Health for León, an annual cardiology medical mission to Nicaragua started by doctors at East Carolina University nearly 30 years ago. It was what needed to be done in that moment to sustain—and prolong—his life.

To most donors, the word “sustainer” means a monthly bank account deduction. Noël, however, brings a clinical rigor to her definition of the word. To sustain a person’s life, one must evaluate their needs to determine what to provide them, and one must always reevaluate those needs because needs change as time passes.

This has given a diagnostic bent to her life of service as well as to her philanthropy through Triangle Community Foundation, where she is a fundholder and former board member. And it means that Noël is happiest when rolling up her sleeves in a Nicaraguan hospital or swinging a hammer as a “Geezer” on a Habitat for Humanity worksite here in the Triangle.

“I’m not a big academic person,” she says, grinning. “I’m totally hands-on.”

Noël and her husband Marc are originally from Belgium, where Marc founded a company that manufactured pipe insulation. With daughter Judith, they relocated to Westport, Connecticut in 1979 before settling in Raleigh in 1988. Since they have been in the states, they’ve had two more children—Michael and Wendy—and now have five grandchildren, too.

After completing degrees in psychology and public health, Noël soon completed the physician’s assistant program at Duke and began a 20-year career specializing in pediatrics and primary care and, later, global health and migrant health. Rather than working in the Triangle, however, she commuted to Henderson, NC, to work in a poor, rural community.

“It’s a great place for the challenge of medicine because we were an hour away from any big center so we did everything,” she says. “And it was also a great way to be directly involved in a part of the state that wasn’t as wealthy as Raleigh.”

“What I really liked—and this is a crossover with the Foundation—is that it’s a 50/50 segregated town. My supervising physician was African-American and there were patients who wouldn’t see him, and there were patients who wouldn’t see me, because of the race barrier. But I felt so welcomed by the African-American community.”

Getting to know her community is a requirement for sustainership, as far as Noël is concerned. That’s why she appreciates her past involvement with the Foundation’s Community Grantmaking Program from 2009 to 2012, and the Community Development committee in 2013 and 2014.

“As a donor, you want to know what’s out there,” she says. “But you have about 5,000 nonprofits in the area here. How do you know on your own, right?”

Funding recommendations for the Foundation’s Community Programs, including the Community Grantmaking Program, now known as Our Focus, are made by volunteer committees of fundholders and community experts.  Volunteers conduct site visits and interview eligible nonprofits to make recommendations for the limited pool of funds. Noël appreciates that the clarity of the personal visit is shared across the group of donors and volunteers so they can make informed, confident choices in their giving.

“Wealth is kept in a certain part of society. It’s not well disseminated,” she says. “It’s difficult to unlock that and it’s difficult for the people who have more to say they’re willing to have a little less if everybody can have more.”

“If it’s just done one-to-one, you only know one nonprofit. But if you have the tools to assess and ask questions, then you educate your fundholders, and the Foundation is conscious of that.”

That consciousness has led Noël and her husband to support nonprofits such as Teach for America, Read and Feed, and Kidznotes—organizations that activate their values of public health and education through some serious hands-on work.

“Marc and I have chosen for our children to have less. We told them that we have three children and the fourth would be philanthropy,” Noël says. “You just need a certain amount to live well. Once you have a house and a car and you eat enough, what more you do you need?”

-Written by Chris Vitiello