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The Life of Robin Smalley: Empowering African Women to Overcome AIDS

giving backmoms making a difference

AIDS/HIV Awareness—Robin Smalley's name may not be known in every household in America, but the TV shows she has directed might. Maybe you've heard of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or "Entertainment Tonight." The organization which she now directs, mothers-2-mothers, may likewise not be familiar to you, but the cause for which it fights surely is: that of the prevention of mother-to-child AIDS/HIV transmission. She left a life of glamour to make more HIV-free lives possible. She is a mom making a difference.

"I was 48, a mother to two daughters, a wife, and TV producer accustomed to phone calls from Robin Leach, beckoning me to adventurous, exotic places," Robin says in an interview with The Women's Conference. But in 2004, her best friend Karen went into a coma. While sitting at her bedside, she talked with Karen's brother, obstetrician Mitch Besser, who told her about a program he had in mind that  would educate, counsel, and support HIV-positive mothers to help them prevent the transmission of the deadly virus to their unborn babies. He needed help turning his dream into reality. When Karen passed away, Robin looked for a way to make her life more meaningful. So, she accepted the challenge, and relocated herself and her family to Cape Town, South Africa.

While it may have seemed a drastic career change, it was actually more of a step in the direction she had been subtly taking over the previous few years, according to a report about her from the Population Council. Even while she directed and produced, she found she had a passion for social issues, which led her to become involved with several non-profit organizations. She became a member of the board of directors of Streetlights, a Hollywood-based non-profit dedicated to providing job training and placement in the entertainment industry for at-risk young people.

Eventually, she became the Executive Director of the Media Project, working with all the major networks and studios to provide accurate and honest information on HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, contraception, sexual abuse and assault, STDs, and healthy parent/child communication. The ingenious blending of her skills as a director and producer, and her drive and passion to make a difference regarding the issue of reproductive health, made her the perfect person to develop mothers-2-mothers.

She says, "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 are still 900 babies born with HIV EVERY DAY in Africa. There isn’t a reason in the world why a baby should be born with the virus. Medical intervention is available. It comes down to caring for the only people who can stop this tragedy: the mothers. It is as important that these mothers stay alive to raise their children. We have over 15 million AIDS orphans in Africa; that's more than all the children in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and New Mexico combined. It's tragic and unnecessary. How can we fail to prevent this kind of tragedy?"

Like our Jyl Johnson Pattee, who visited Africa recently, Robin is passionate about strengthening and empowering African women so they can overcome their many challenges, and prevent more. Robin writes, "[When I arrived in Cape Town], I fell madly, irrevocably in love with the women I met…their spirit, their courage, and their joy in life despite their HIV status." Likewise, Jyl writes, "{I} met one woman who shared about her own battle...and how she lost her mother to an infectious disease. She passionately claimed how without volunteer workers, people would not take on the treatment. But through them, they are able to help the bed-ridden stand up, walk again, and ultimately recover. They are amazing examples of community, strength, and sisterhood."

mothers-2-mothers started with nothing more than a dream and a passion. Today, there are six hundred m2m sites throughout South Africa, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Uganda, and Tanzania. They employ almost 1,500 HIV-positive mothers, and have reached over one million moms since it began. They have been visited by First Lady Laura Bush, then-Senator Obama and Senator Pelosi, countless members of Congress, Kenneth Cole, Bono, Beyonce, and Elton John. They have been honored at the White House, briefed the Senate, and won the prestigious Skoll Entrepreneurial Award. Robin and her family have since relocated back to Los Angeles, where she serves as m2m’s International Director, guiding the organization’s continued growth and working with its American partners and funders, while providing strategic and development oversight. Making a difference is Robin's career, her passion, her life.

If you share that passion, Robin invites you to donate $5 in gratitude for your own healthy children. "If every mother in America donated just that much, we could change the world we live in."

 Do you know of other ways you can get involved in the fight against AIDS in Africa?

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