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Holly Robinson Peete: Making a Difference

The actress and philanthropist travels to Africa to help improve the healthcare of expectant Kenyan mothers

Holly Robinson Peete is a superwoman: not only is the mother of four an award-winning author and actress, but she also, along with her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, spearheads HollyRod, a non-profit foundation devoted to battling Parkinson’s disease.

This past summer, Peete traveled to Kenya to help the Maternal Fetal Care Institute, an organization whose mission it is to improve healthcare for expectant mothers. Here, Peete opens up about playing Nurse Holly.


ESSENCE.com: Your philanthropic work is such an inspiration. How did you become involved with the Maternal Fetal Care Institute?

Holly Robinson Peete: I met Dr. Lisa Materson, the founder of Maternal Fetal Care through Cookie Johnson, Magic Johnson’s wife. Dr. Lisa was hosting an event to honor Cookie and they had an auction for a trip to Kenya at the event. Marianne Jean Baptiste (from Without a Trace) shared a testimonial about the trip she won last year to India and how they helped all these pregnant moms who didn’t have access to proper healthcare. I was sold. I went home and told my husband I was heading to Africa. It was inspiring, amazing and nurturing to my soul.

ESSENCE.com: Was this your first trip to the Motherland?

H.R.P: When I was in college I met a girl named Nabila from Nairobi, Kenya. I was so fascinated about where she was from. She told me about Mambasa, a beach area on the coast of Kenya. I became obsessed and wanted to get there. Earlier this year, I went to visit Oprah’s school and I’d taken my children to South Africa before, but this trip to see the Masai people definitely wasn’t a trip for the kids.

ESSENCE.com: What did you do on your visit?

H.R.P.: We talked about prenatal care.The women there were used to bending down during childbirth, grabbing a stick and pole and bearing down. The hospital was about three hours away from the village by car and if there happened to be any complications, many of the pregnant women would die. Dr. Lisa’s mission is to bring down the mortality rate. So we built this little clinic in a 300-square-foot building; we set up a birthing bed and stocked it with medical supplies.

ESSENCE.com: Were they responsive?

H.R.P: Yes, very. We were able to do X-rays and tell them the sex of their babies, something many of them had never experienced before. I brought a lot of donated baby clothing from Los Angeles with me. They loved the little booties. I played Nurse Holly, taking down vitals such as blood pressure and other medical history stats. I’m not squeamish at all so I was right up in the mix and never felt a moment of queasiness, not even while she delivered those babies.

ESSENCE.com: Was there anything that shocked you while you were there?

H.R.P: I saw this 17-year-old girl who was in labor for 8 hours and never made a sound. It was her first child and she didn’t receive any epidural. In Masai culture, showing any sign of pain is a sign of weakness, so she never once vocalized her suffering. I was thinking, Shouldn’t she be screaming bloody murder right about now? What’s also interesting is that the Masai men stay outside during childbirth; the midwives or the mother-in-laws stay with the expectant mothers.

ESSENCE.com: What did you love the most about your trip?

H.R.P: Rolling up in there, seeing all those people of color! I was straining to see a white person. When we flew somewhere, the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendants and mechanics-everybody was Black! When is the last time you saw that domestically? It was one of those situations you get so excited about, witnessing that beauty.

ESSENCE.com: So did anyone recognize you?

H.R.P: I went to radio stations to do a few interviews and I had no idea that three of my shows were in syndication there-For Your Love; 21 Jump Street; Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. They knew everything about me and I was blown away by that.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Holly Robinson Peete