In 2004, Robin Smalley was a TV producer in Los Angeles who longed to do something more. She found her inspiration while visiting a friend, a physician living in Cape Town, South Africa, who was trying to launch a first-of-kind peer education program for pregnant women living with HIV. A year later, she co-founded mothers2mothers (www.m2m.org), which currently employs 1,600 HIV-infected mothers to mentor hundreds of thousands of mothers each year at almost 650 sites throughout Africa. Here’s more from my interview with Robin:
Jennifer Haupt: What was the catalyst for changing your life?
Robin Smalley: I was in my mid-40s and really wanting to use my skills to make the world a better place, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that would look. Then, both my mother and my best friend died within the space of a year. I became stuck in my losses. My friend’s brother, Dr. Mitch Besser, invited me to Cape Town and I thought it would be a good place to stand back and look at my life.
JH: At that time, what was Mitch doing in Cape Town?
RS: He was running his mother mentoring program out of the back of a car, borrowing money month to month to keep going. Mitch had had this incredible vision: providing young moms with HIV the information and skills to improve their lives and end the legacy of this disease. And, at the same time, train them to educate and provide support for other young HIV-infected women who were pregnant and had no one to turn to.
JH: Is HIV/AIDS a secret that women keep?
RS: Yes, a shameful secret. Because of this stigma, they can’t tell their family or friends, not even their husbands who are often the ones who infected them. Perhaps the saddest part of that they have no idea they can take measures to protect their unborn children from being infected, so the disease is passed along to the next generation. Mitch wanted to end that cycle, and I knew I could help him.
JH: How did you help Mitch take mothers2mothers to the next level?
RS: I had a television production background and if you can produce live TV, you can produce anything! I knew we could put m2m on the map so we could begin to access serious funding. Our third friend, Gene Falk, brought in a business background and within a year, we had set up a nonprofit that was running 73 clinics in hospitals throughout South Africa with affiliated programs in Botswana and Ethiopia. Laura Bush came over to visit, and before long, everyone started to realize how important women’s empowerment could be to getting a handle on prevention of mother-to-child transmission. There’s no limit to how widespread this network of mother mentors can and will be.
JH: How did getting involved with mothers2mothers change your life?
RS: The first change was moving with my husband and two teenage daughters to South Africa for that first year. Now, I split my time between Los Angeles and South Africa. And I’ve met so many amazing women who continue to inspire me. For example, Babalwa had been beaten by her husband who gave her AIDS. He wouldn’t get tested himself, yet she nursed him back to health using her m2m training. Now, Babalwa’s husband has stopped drinking and treats her with respect because she’s earning money as an m2m mentor. And, none of her children have AIDS because she’s learned to take care of herself.
JH: What impact do you see that mothers2mothers is having?
RS: As I see our program continue to grow and spread throughout Africa, it becomes clearer and clearer that women are Africa’s greatest resource. Empowering and educating them to create a new tier for the faltering health care system them is what’s going to save the continent.
Give the gift of life for Mother’s Day: Donate to mothers2mothers
With a gift of $50 and more, your mother will receive a beautifully-designed card letting her know that a very meaningful donation has been made on her behalf. In addition, she will receive an exclusive music DVD single created by 17-year-old rising star Rachel Eskenazi-Gold entitled "Save An Angel." This moving song was written and performed by Rachel in tribute to mothers2mothers moms and produced by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer.