"I was a divorced mom of two, and I had an hour commute, and the job I was working didn't have health care or pay very well," she said, recalling a much different time in her life. "I was living hand to mouth."
That meant sizable doctor bills when her daughters got sick and no medical attention when she did.
On her way to work every day, though, she drove past the L.A. Free Clinic on Beverly Boulevard. But even while battling a virus she couldn't shake, Cheryl refused to enter the building. She assumed the clinic, which requests only "donations" from patients, was only for the indigent, and she felt guilty about taking away from those who were in greater need.
"Finally, I didn't have any other options, so I came here," she recalled, surprised to find that the clinic was a real medical office and that she didn't feel judged for using its services. "It was a lifesaver for me, in a world where not many life rings get tossed out. Angels definitely were working here."
And Cheryl didn't forget it. Earlier this month, she and her husband, Haim Saban, chair and CEO of Saban Capital Group and chair of Univision Communications, committed $10 million to the Free Clinic, the largest gift in its 41-year history. And this spring, the facility will be renamed the Saban Free Clinic.
The gift is an unrestricted endowment, which means it can be used for whatever administrators see fit. Constituting about 70 percent of the clinic's annual budget, the money likely will be used to supplement reduced government funding, a constant concern as the state grapples with a $16 billion budget shortfall and the economy teeters on the brink -- or may already be in the midst -- of recession.
"When the state might be cutting or someone else will be cutting, it will allow us to survive," said Abbe Land, the clinic's co-CEO. "It will give us that cushion for sustainability."
For Cheryl Saban, the gift, one of many the Saban Family Foundation has given to the Free Clinic since the early 1990s, marked how much her life has changed in the past 25 years. Most of that transformation occurred within three years of her handful of visits to the clinic, when she went to work for, and then married, Saban.
Saban was born to a modest Jewish family in Egypt that fled to Israel in the 1956 Suez War. He later found a home as a television producer in Hollywood, best known for the live-action kids show, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." The Beverly Hills resident, who founded Saban Entertainment and Fox Family Worldwide, now ranks 102nd on Forbes' list of richest Americans, with a reported net worth of $3.4 billion.
Together, Cheryl and Haim Saban have focused their philanthropy on Israel -- they have sent millions to Soroka Medical Center and, among other programs, an organization that provides physical and psychological rehabilitation for disabled veterans and terror victims -- and health care, evidenced by the $40 million their foundation gave to Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, home of the Saban Research Institute.
The Free Clinic, which has four facilities and handles 100,000 patient visits each year, provides physician services, disease testing, prescription filling and nutritional counseling.
For people like Kris Carter, an unemployed 41-year-old woman struggling with Type-II diabetes, the clinic is the only thing keeping her out of a county hospital emergency room.
"We have always been impressed with the Los Angeles Free Clinic and the work it does for those in need," Saban said. "Our greatest wish is that it inspires other donors to recognize the important role of the clinic in providing health services to the uninsured in Los Angeles. Anyone can fall through the insurance safety net."
In fact, Land said, Cheryl Saban's story is not that unique -- aside from the size of the gift. It's common for people who once came to the clinic in need to return years later as volunteers, even physicians.
Meeting at the clinic last week for an interview, Cheryl Saban grew teary-eyed as she reflected on harder times. The image that sticks in her mind is not of her first visit to the clinic but of a pale-skinned woman with fiery red hair and puffy red eyes. She'd seen her while volunteering at a homeless shelter in the San Fernando Valley a few years after she remarried. The woman had two sons with her, and Cheryl couldn't help but feel that but for the smallest adjustment in the universe, that could have been her.
"Life is just not fair," said Cheryl, who has written several books on parenting, marriage and children advocacy and founded the nonprofit, 50 Ways to Save Our Children. "And since it isn't fair, I am of the mindset that we have to make it fair."
She later added: "I saw how easy it is to fall off the edge."