Robin Smalley has given birth to two children and life to many millions more. In 2004, bereaved by the death of her mother and her best friend Karen, Robin packed up her husband, two adolescent daughters and a pair of dogs and, with very little forethought and just a smidgen of planning, moved to Cape Town. There she planned on spending a year caring for HIV-positive women with Karen’s brother, Dr. Mitch Besser. However, this sabbatical from “real life” transformed Robin, introducing her to a new calling and her true life’s work. From the ashes of their mourning, Robin and Mitch created mothers2mothers (m2m), a nonprofit whose mission is to impact the health of mothers by putting them at the heart of improving reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health.
Robin had always planned on changing the world, but after graduating from Tufts University in 1977, she took a 15-year detour into television, producing and directing shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, Entertainment Tonight, George & Alana and Leeza. However, Robin felt trapped in this lucrative, Emmy award-winning, yet ultimately unfulfilling career. To feed her soul (if not her family) she consulted after hours, helping nonprofits with PR and video production. She finally cut the television cord completely when one of her clients, The Media Project, hired her as the executive director of its four-person staff in Los Angeles.
At The Media Project, Robin and her team provided accurate information on adolescent sexuality and reproductive health to television writers, producers and network executives for incorporation into their shows. Her efforts at The Media Project were recognized with a Telly Award, a Cindy Award, a National Health Information Award, a National Council on Family Relations Award and a Society for Adolescent Medicine Award.
While Robin had great success with The Media Project, she had not yet developed any experience in public health or social entrepreneurship. Not knowing what they didn’t know, Robin and Mitch started m2m from the trunk of Mitch’s ancient Mercedes sedan. The organization has now grown into a virtual army of local mothers (Mentor Mothers) living with HIV who are trained and empowered to be frontline healthcare workers in underserved countries. Mentor Mothers educate other mothers on ways to protect their babies from HIV infection and keep themselves and their families healthy. Their intimate understanding of the social and cultural challenges of living with HIV gives every Mentor Mother the unique ability to form trusting relationships with other women, empowering them to overcome their fears and make life-saving decisions.
Headquartered in Cape Town, mothers2mothers employs about 1,800 people working in seven African countries and the U.S. This organization has been proven to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV to an average transmission rate of 2.1% in the mothers served over the past two years. In Uganda, an independent evaluation found that for every $1 spent on the mothers2mothers program, $11.40 is saved in averted HIV treatment costs.
Participating in the program also has a positive impact on the Mentor Mothers by enabling them to gain financial security for themselves and their families. Mentor Mothers are role models in their communities, proving that people living with AIDS can be empowered, employed and healthy.
Robin eventually returned to Los Angeles where she now primarily focuses on fundraising and communications for mothers2mothers and shares what she has learned in a Spring class at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. She has obviously taught her daughters well: Hannah already has a wealth of global health experience and is entering the University of Michigan for an advanced degree this fall; Sophia is a newly-minted University of Oregon graduate seeking opportunities in juvenile justice. And if her life weren’t busy enough, Robin also volunteers at her local animal shelter. She has most definitely earned a pint or two of her favorite indulgence, ice cream.