From Hollywood to Africa: Changing Lives

by ROBIN SMALLEY/ co-Founder mothers2mothers


I’d had a successful career as a television producer/director, an 18-year marriage that friends envied, and two beautiful daughters.  Life was good, if not exciting. My future was neither frightening nor particularly challenging.  Like many women in mid-life, I wondered, was this all there was?

My stepfather always said, “Man plans, God laughs.”  Well, God must have gotten a belly full. After a two year spiral in which both my stepfather and mother passed away and I fought breast cancer, I got a call that would change my life in ways I could never have foreseen.

My best friend, my sister in every way but blood, Karen Besser, had gone in for minor surgery and come out in a coma.  For two weeks her brother, Mitch, and I took turns napping on the cot in her room and sitting bedside, as he told me stories of the HIV-positive mothers he, as an obstetrician, treated every day in Cape Town.  He shared his dream, a program he called mothers2mothers, that would educate, counsel and support these mothers in an effort to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus to their unborn babies.  He had a vision but recognized that he needed help to turn his dream into reality.  I relayed the restlessness I felt, the desire to find new experiences, explore real challenges.

Karen passed away and I wondered how I would survive.  Rescue came with an invitation from Mitch to visit 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, the cardboard shacks they called home, their lack of water, electricity, plumbing, and food.  How dare I feel sorry for myself?  I who had so much.  I was shamed.  On my second day, long before the jet lag had begun to dissipate, I called my husband, Jeff.  Without much hope of his agreement, I said I wanted to move to South Africa, so I could take the reins of this fledgling grassroots organization. To my shock, my wonderful husband only said “when?”

Six weeks later, Jeff, 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.

Together with Mitch, we set out to realize a dream.  From Day 1, it was a roller coaster…exhilarating, scary, and the most fun I had ever had.  Opening our first real office with a skeleton staff consisting mostly of committed volunteers, with no budget and no assets, I felt completely over my head but also completely alive, and in a weird way, feeling like my brain was working hard for the first time in many years.  It was amazing!

I learned then what I still think is the greatest injustice of our time…every day, 1,000 babies in Africa are born with HIV – compared with one a day in the US and Europe.  And it is entirely preventable.  I wanted to make a difference and I knew mothers2mothers could provide a solution.

mothers2mothers educates, supports, and empowers mothers living with HIV to keep themselves and their children healthy, providing a simple solution to a complex set of problems. Our “Mentor Mothers” fill the gaps left by public health systems, providing a secure, warm environment where women can feel safe to share their fears and feelings about their children’s health, disclosure to their partners, friends and family, and the feeling of helplessness engendered by being alone, pregnant and infected with HIV/AIDS.

I knew mothers2mothers would work but that first year all we had to convince others was 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 themselves had 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, entrusting us with their money and their confidence.  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 seven years later and mothers2mothers has grown into a multinational nonprofit with more than 700 sites throughout sub-Saharan.  We employ almost 1,800 HIV-positive mothers who reach 20% of the global population of HIV-positive pregnant women with messages of empowerment and education.    My daughters began high school in Cape Town and are now both in college in the US although my eldest spent last semester in Ghana, starting her own nonprofit.  They had scores of powerful mothers as role models.

They believe what I have learned as well…we can make pediatric HIV a thing of the past…one mother at a time.


Take Action! Help keep moms and babies healthy by donating to mothers2mothers.

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