By Robin Smalley
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his commitment to service and change, we're sharing Robin Smalley's story. She left a life of glamour and fame to move to South Africa, where she worked intensely to stop the transmission of HIV from mothers to their infants.
I was 48, a mother, wife and TV producer accustomed to phone calls from Robin Leach, beckoning me to adventurous, exotic places. But in 2004 a series of tragedies brought me together with Mitch, a man working with HIV-positive mothers in South Africa.
Mitch envisioned creating a program called mothers2mothers, which would educate, counsel and support HIV-positive mothers in an effort to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus to their unborn babies. He had the vision, but he needed help to turn his dream into reality. I, meanwhile, felt a boredom with my life – a desire to live new experiences, to find real challenges.
One day, months after our first meeting, Mitch invited me to join him in Cape Town.
I went. And fell madly, irrevocably in love with the women I met…their spirit, their courage, and their joy in life despite their HIV status. Six weeks after my arrival in South Africa my wonderful husband, my 12 and 15 year old girls, and our two dogs landed in Cape Town. The next day I began the work that would become my life’s passion.
Let me tell you what I think is the greatest injustice of our time, that there are fewer babies born with HIV/AIDS in the U.S., UK and Europe combined in a year than in a single African clinic. There isn’t a reason in the world why a baby should be born with the virus. It is easy and cheap to prevent. It comes down to caring for the only people who can stop this tragedy -- the mothers.
We knew mothers2mothers would work, but that first year we had nothing to sell it on other than enthusiasm and faith. For office furniture, I scavenged the streets of the townships, getting mugged as I tried to purchase an ancient desk, collecting castoffs from people who seemed to have nothing.
Mitch and I ran from country to country, enlisting the support of local ministries of health, other nonprofits, and a handful of believers. Gradually, people started to join us, trusting us with their money. The donations started small and for every $5,000 we would do a mad victory dance. Our first corporate donor, Johnson & Johnson, belied everything I’d ever thought about big pharmaceuticals. The people from its Corporate Contributions department supported us not just with funds, but guided us in ways to make us legitimate, steering us to more effective ways to prove results.
It is now five years later…together with Mitch and our third partner, Gene, we have grown mothers2mothers into a multinational nonprofit with more than five hundred sites throughout South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Malawi. We employ almost 1,400 HIV-positive mothers, and reached about one million moms last year with our messages of empowerment and education. We have been visited by First Lady Laura Bush, then Senator Obama (during his campaign) and Senator Pelosi, countless members of Congress, Kenneth Cole, Bono, Beyonce, and Elton John. We have been honored at the White House, briefed the Senate, and won the prestigious Skoll Entrepreneurial Award. I was even included in Kenneth Cole’s new book, Awearness.
Do I miss the glamour of television? What do you think?
This was my story and I hope you will want to learn more about mothers2mothers. To do so, please check out www.m2m.org
Robin Smalley, a former award-winning television director/producer of shows such as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous,” is the co-founder and international director of mothers2mothers.