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One Less Statistic

One Less StatisticRobin Smalley (J'77), co-founder and international director of Mothers2Mothers, discusses how the organization grew from a vision to a reality.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.23.08] Robin Smalley (J'77) loves her job. So it may be shocking to learn that her dream is that someday soon her job will no longer exist.

"I am hoping that one day we will be put out of business," says Smalley, co-founder and international director for Mothers2Mothers (M2M), a nonprofit program that provides both the mental support and the medical attention needed to help African women give birth to healthy HIV-negative babies.

In the past four years, the organization has grown from an operation run on a shoestring budget out of the backseat of a car to a program with an $11 million annual budget and 250 sites in seven African countries. M2M has also attracted the attention of people ranging from First Lady Laura Bush to fashion designer Kenneth Cole.

"It just sort of all took off," says Smalley.

"I have to do this program"

The idea for M2M came from Mitch Besser, an OB-GYN whom Smalley knew as the brother of her best friend from college, Karen Besser (A'78).

In 2004, after undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery, Karen Besser went into a coma, never coming out of the anesthesia. Smalley and Mitch Besser both went to Chicago to be with her.Mitch traveled from Cape Town, South Africa, where he was working at Groote Schuur Hospital as a consultant for an organization called Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission. The nonprofit group focused on the medical - rather than the emotional -- aspect of AIDS. As Mitch and Smalley reconnected, he told her about his vision for Mothers2Mothers.

"He thought it had real potential, but he was a doctor and not a business person, and he didn't know how to make it grow," Smalley recalls.

After Karen Besser passed away in February 2004, Smalley says her life was thrown into a tilt.Having spent the seven years prior working for Los Angeles-based nonprofit The Media Project, the former television director and producer was ready for a new challenge.. An invitation to Cape Town from Mitch Besser to meet the women he was hoping to help brought Smalley that opportunity.

"My second day there he was doing exams with the pregnant women, and I just fell in love with them, absolutely head over heels for their courage, their joy and their spirit," she recalls. "That second day, I called my husband and said 'I have to do this program, we have to move here.'" A month later, her family had relocated to Cape Town.

Want to help? Contact Robin Smalley at

A Support System

The idea behind M2M is to make up for what Africa's medical system lacks-support. With hospitals run mainly by overworked nurses, pregnant women who test positive for HIV are often not given the guidance needed to help them prepare for childbirth.

"What was happening was the women were coming in for their first prenatal visit, usually around seven months, and at that time they were offered their first HIV test," Smalley says. "When it would come back positive, there would be no one to counsel them and then it was a death sentence for them and their unborn baby."

With the understanding that Africa's best resource for this problem was the mothers themselves, the first incarnation of M2M was born. Besser and Smalley gave women who had recently given birth rigorous training with the expectation of placing them with expectant and new mothers as "mentor mothers." Mentor mothers are paid for their work, which Smalley says empowers them to leave abusive relationships, care for their babies and become role models in their community.

"When a young woman comes in, immediately a mentor mother is called who can come in and put her arms around her and say, 'You're not alone, I am HIV-positive and my baby is negative and your baby can be born negative, too.'"

The mentor mother then becomes the woman's advocate, assuring she is properly counseled and receives the medication she needs to keep her unborn baby healthy. According to Smalley, 100 percent of the babies born into the program have tested negative for HIV.

A Passion To Help

Smalley's path to Mothers2Mothers was circuitous. While at Tufts, Smalley says she studied social psychology, with an eventual goal of going into television news.

"I thought this was where I could make the greatest impact on the world."

Smalley spent the first 20 years of her career as a television producer and director of shows such as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and "Leeza." After having children, she realized that she was unhappy with her television career, which left her no time for her family. She then turned to non-profit work, which is where Smalley says she found her passion.

Her advice to those who are just beginning their careers? "You shouldn't stress out so much over the first job, because life is a road and you can't possibly imagine where it is going to lead you. What you do now really isn't important in the long run, as long you can find something that you feel passionate about."

Today, M2M has nearly 250 sites in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Malawi. Smalley says that M2M plans to continue opening sites wherever they are needed. The organization is currently looking for funding to expand to Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania within the next year.

"People look at AIDS in Africa and think it's insurmountable and there is nothing we can do about it," Smalley says. "This is something that can be prevented, and if I can just educate people to care about life outside their own backyard, then I have done something."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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