August 10th, 2009

Robin Smalley and mothers2mothers

Brittany Hume, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson

Working in the field of HIV/AIDS, I consider myself spoiled by the caliber of people that I encounter on a day-to-day basis. Passion and gritty determination are prerequisite characteristics for choosing a career in global public health, and the organizations with which Johnson & Johnson partners on its Corporate Contributions work are peppered with unsung heroes chasing ambitious dreams and overcoming inconceivable day-to-day challenges to improve the health of millions.

Robin Smalley is one such person. As one of the co-founders of mothers2mothers, Robin helped launch an organization that tackles one of the most tragic—and preventable—public health issues in Africa today: the transmission of HIV/AIDS from a mother to her baby.

As they say, though, some leaders are born, and others are made. Robin would place herself in the latter category.

At first introduction, Robin is a bright, warm person whose sunny disposition reflects her California roots. She spent the first half of her career in television, serving as a writer, producer, and director for iconic shows like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and rubbing elbows with actors and celebrities. Despite her success earned by years of hard work, Robin began to question her happiness and fulfillment.

And then, disaster struck. In one year, Robin lost her mother, her stepfather, and her best friend. Adrift at her best friend’s death bed, Robin began absentmindedly listening to her best friend’s brother, Dr. Mitch Besser, speak of his struggle to help HIV-positive mothers and babies in his work as an OB/GYN in South Africa. Over the course of two weeks, they talked amid their grief. After the sister’s funeral, Mitch called Robin and urged her to come visit Cape Town and see his patients herself.

The rest, as they say , is history.
Eight years after Robin first flew to Cape Town, mothers2mothers has expanded from one clinic in South Africa to 546 sites in seven countries. Their work has received global acclaim, including the Skoll Prize for Social Entrepreneurship (2008), the Presidential Citizens Medal (to Dr. Besser, in 2008), and the Africa Regional Social Entrepreneurs Award (2009) by the Schwab Foundation, an affiliate of the World Economic Forum. But most importantly, they have helped over 81,000 HIV+ women care for themselves and protect their babies from HIV transmission.

Although scientific advances and high-quality medical care have nearly eradicated pediatric AIDS in developed countries by reducing the rate of transmission to 1-2%, a staggering two thirds of HIV+ women in Sub-Saharan Africa do not receive the treatment and care they need to protect their babies. Compounding the problem are overburdened hospital staff who lack the time needed to advise recently diagnosed women about proper prevention steps; crippling social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS that can make a woman afraid to disclose her status, even to her partner and family; and the logistical and financial obstacles to receiving regular prenatal care. Not surprisingly, an HIV-positive diagnosis caused many women to lose hope for their babies and themselves.
mothers2mothers responded to this need by building a unique infrastructure of support, hope, and empowerment. The organization trains HIV-positive mothers to counsel newly diagnosed pregnant women and new mothers on how to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies. These women, known as “mentor mothers,” teach their clients what they need to know to care for themselves and their babies, including user-friendly information about antiretroviral medications, advice for disclosing their status to their families, proper infant feeding practices, and the importance of regular prenatal checkups and delivery in a health facility. Equally important, however, is the psychosocial support that mothers2mothers provides. Mentor mothers lead by example, showing their clients that yes, HIV+ women can have HIV- babies, and that by advocating for their own medical care, women can live to see their children grow and prosper.
Robin maintains that seeing these mothers and babies in person was all she needed to rediscover her direction in life. I invite you to see some of these women, and to hear Robin tell her story in her own words, here and here .

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