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Robin Smalley: Turning Personal Loss Into Global Gain

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Robin Smalley
Robin Smalley

Robin Smalley is a fierce advocate for pediatric AIDS. She turned her personal losses into huge gains for world health -- the elimination of pediatric AIDS. She rebuilt her life -- a totally new one at that -- by serendipitously coming into her passion of giving to other mothers. Ms. Smalley co-founded Mothers2Mothers, a South African NGO (non-governmental organization) providing education and empowerment for pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV/AIDS. She is the international director of this nonprofit that is tirelessly working to prevent mother-to-child transmission of this virus in Africa.

Please give us an overview of this global life-changing organization, Mothers2Mothers.

We work with HIV-positive new mothers and pregnant women to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children. We are part of the global plan to eliminate pediatric HIV by 2015 and keep mothers alive. We have virtually eradicated pediatric AIDS in the U.S. and Europe. But we still have 900 babies a day born in Africa with HIV, completely preventable and unnecessary. We train and employ HIV-positive mothers as peer mentors to other women. The medical systems are so broken. There are basically no doctors; the nurses do everything and they're overworked and overwhelmed and the last thing they have time to do is counsel a young HIV-positive pregnant woman how to avoid transmitting the virus. For these young women, they think it's a death sentence. Because of the stigma they're afraid to disclose to their husbands or their family and so they go home to die, and their baby as well. The interventions are there and available. All it takes is empowering and educating young women. The global health community has gotten together and is saying that we can eliminate pediatric AIDs by 2015. In the next three years we can do this. What a legacy we can leave. This isn't a black hole. There's so much for so little that we can do to prevent a generation of children from being born sick.

How did you come to this?

Mitch, my best friend Karen's brother, invited me to come to Capetown, South Africa, (after Karen's death)

My first day there I went on rounds with Mitch because he was still a practicing obstetrician. I was meeting women who were so extraordinary and so brave and had so much spirit and joy where they had no reason to be joyful. These were women who lived in a cardboard shack with no electricity, no water. They were alone, they had AIDS; they were as down as I could imagine. And yet they were finding the bright side. They were finding things to get up in the morning for and they would sing. And I remember thinking, 'my God it took me over a year before I could sing after my mother died.' They got to the clinic and they'd dance as they prayed. It was like a bucket of cold water.

I knew nothing about Africa, nothing about AIDS. I called my husband and I said, "I have to do this, we have to move here." My husband shockingly said O.K.

Literally a month later we picked up the kids, the dogs and the house and moved. It was the absolute best thing. Karen and my mother had been very close. I believe the two of them made this happen. I've always thought they knew this was the right thing for me. It all just came so easily. There were all these things -- if this doesn't happen we can't move, and on and on. But it all just fell into place.

In retrospect, it continued to do so. People thought I was insane. I quit my job, my husband left his work, we had nothing to go to. We were doing the program out of Mitch's car. We didn't have anything but a great idea. We borrowed from people and raised money and put money on credit cards. Within 7 years we built it into a 20 million dollar business that's the largest employer of HIV-positive women in the world. It was something that needed to be done. What a gift I was given -- to find the passion of my life at 48 years old when I'd had a successful career. I had won the awards, I was making good money as a television director. But it was a job; and it was fun. But I've found something that is truly a blessing. It's been a life-changer for me and my family.

It got me using my brain. At my age, you don't really have to use your brain that much. You do when you're in school, when your job is new. But you get to a certain point in your career that you simply know how to do what you do. Here I was learning so hard so fast, it felt like my head was going to explode at the end of the day. I felt like a newborn must feel but can't articulate it. I was learning so much and it was so exciting. What people don't always know is that the skills they have can be used in so many ways. If you had asked me in a rational moment, "Do you have skills as a TV director that are applicable to running a non-profit in Africa for AIDS?" I would've said, "Are you kidding me!" Can you imagine two things more different. I would venture to say that any skill anybody has, has way more applications than they're giving themselves credit for.

In speaking to you, I hear such excitement. You exude so much delight and passion. What's got you going like this?

Doing something like this with somebody you love, is so much fun. M2M growing the way it did so quickly was unbelievable. We went in a matter of months from having nothing to Laura Bush coming to visit us and inviting us to the White House and celebrities coming. It was a whirlwind. We were constantly having these pinch-me moments. Having that with somebody who's one of your closest friends is so cool. We would find ourselves in these places -- the Senate, in the White House saying, 'Can you believe it, what are we doing here?' And we're still doing that.

We now employ 1500 HIV-positive mothers. We have 600 sites in seven countries. And we're working with the governments of other countries to implement the mentor-mother model into their national health care standards. It's just wonderful.