As Mother’s Day approaches Sunday, we are reminded what being a mother means — the ups and downs, the sacrifices, the joy.

What it should never mean is a death sentence.

Yet in many countries, that’s exactly what it is. More than 300,000 women die throughout the world during childbirth, most in developing countries. The United States ranks 60th in maternal health care — which means two women die in the United States during childbirth every day.

Those startling figures prompted Christy Turlington Burns, who shot to fame in the late 1980s and 90s as a supermodel, to become concerned with how she could help change that. Thus Every Mother Counts, of which Turlington is CEO and founder, was “born.”

Her passion and commitment to the cause inspired her close friend, Darien resident Hilani Kerr, who moved here in 2014, to do things she’d never expected of herself.

Recently, Kerr joined Turlington on an EMC trip to Tanzania — a decision that she didn’t take lightly. Kerr, who works a full-time job in New York City that often requires travel, said she’d never taken a trip away from her husband, Neville, and daughters, Imogen, a seventh grader at Middlesex Middle School, and Ingrid, a fourth grader at Royle School, that wasn’t work or vacation.

Recently, Kerr and Turlington sat down with The Darien Times in EMC’s headquarters in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to talk about their trip, their friendship and their passion for their cause.

Though the two have been friends for only approximately two years, the rapport and mutual admiration between them makes it appear like a lifelong bond.

They connected after Kerr attended a work conference at which Turlington was speaking about Every Mother Counts.

Kerr said that after the conference, she Googled the charity and was moved by its message and Turlington’s approach.

“The opening sentences made me want to dig a little more — your personal journey made it so real — so human,” she said to Turlington.

Turlington began looking into maternal health and mortality after suffering complications from one of her own pregnancies.

After her daughter was born, Turlington had an attached placenta issue, which caused a postpartum hemorrhage.

“That experience was what led me to learn more about maternal death — I had no idea,” she said.

She was compelled to direct and produce the documentary No Woman, No Cry about maternal health challenges that impact the lives of millions of girls and women around the world. Every Mother Counts was launched in 2010 to heighten awareness about the global maternal health crisis.

This was not the first philanthropic effort for Turlington. At the height of career, she said, she was looking for ways to give back. However, after trying different avenues proposed by others, she realized she needed to feel a personal connection.

Turlington, who smoked in her late teens and early 20s, became actively involved in an anti-smoking campaign after losing her father to lung cancer in her late 20s.

“My first public advocacy was around that issue,” she said.

Turlington filmed an emotional and personal film as part of anti-smoking campaign — in which she talks about her experiences and the death of her father. 

Turlington's Public Service Announcement to stop smoking

“People still come up to me and tell me they quit because of that video,” she said.

Running — distance as a barrier

After the initial meeting at the work conference, Kerr and Turlington began having an email relationship. Turlington proposed that Kerr take one of EMC’s spots in the New York half marathon. Kerr, who said she loves running, was glad to sign up. Every Mother Counts is heavily tied to marathons and races — but it didn’t start out that way.

Turlington explained that it started as simply sharing a fund-raising arm with the New York City Marathon.

“In 2011, they said, ‘Here’s 10 spots — do with them what you will — thinking we could either give them away or sell them as a fund-raising opportunity,” she said.  

But then EMC formed a team, and Turlington said she couldn’t not join it — though athletic, she said, she had never really been a runner.

By the time she was ready to do the marathon, Turlington said, it was “so clear to me by that … distance as a barrier was such a perfect connection to the cause, and also pregnancy and labor.”

During her first pregnancy, Turlington said, she had a doula, who in determining her threshold for pain, asked her if she’d ever run a marathon.

“I didn’t know why she asked me that until I ran one,” she said.

“These are endurance sports — once you do it and make that comparison, you feel it all the way through the face, from fear to pain to joy to elation — all of those emotions,” Turlington said.

She added that many of those who run with EMC have never run — and some aren’t mothers.

“But they connect on the humanity of this issue,” she said.

Tanzania

When Turlington suggested Kerr join them on their return trip to Tanzania, where the original documentary No Woman, No Cry was filmed, Kerr initially thought it was out of the question. Between her work schedule and family commitments, she just didn’t see a way to do it.

But then she did it anyway — including completing a Mt. Kilimanjaro half marathon.

“You have a created a form of movement, it sounds corny, but an opportunity for inspiration and for people to pay it forward as well — you’ve got this group of people who start to think, What does ‘Every Mother Counts’ mean?” Kerr said.

Kerr cited doing the Mt. Kilimanjaro run as “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life” and said she joked to Turlington that she “might not thank you for this in the end.”

“But I did — I did finish it, and I did thank her,” she said.

“Especially in the last three miles, running through cultures you aren’t familiar with, and you’re hearing in your head, ‘Every mother does count,’” Kerr said.

One particularly impactful visit was to see two tiny, premature twins — each of whom had lost their twin in childbirth — healing and growing together with their mothers. Turlington said both of the babies are doing well.

During the trip, the group also visited schools and hospitals EMC works with to see the impact it’s made on the community. One particular feature was the solar suitcase, a solar kit that is designed for many of the Tanzanian medical facilities. The solar suitcase can provide power, including fetal Doppler services, to many locations with intermittent electrical power.

The facts

In 2010, when Every Mother Counts was founded, 500,000 women died every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Today, in 2017, the number has been reduced to 303,300.

EMC works to address three main barriers to maternal health around the world: lack of transportation, supplies and education.

  • Transportation: Many women live miles away from health care providers and facilities, with extremely limited access to transportation.
  • Education: Skilled attendance at all births is considered to be the single most critical intervention for ensuring safe motherhood.
  • Supplies: Health centers and caregivers lack the basic supplies and equipment necessary to do their jobs.

Since 2012, EMC has provided more than $3.8 million in grants and has directly impacted over 600,000 lives.

Every Mother Counts has a current portfolio of 11 grants that bring essential maternal health care to mothers in need in eight countries: Bangladesh, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States.

The impact

When Kerr was leaving for Tanzania, she stopped at her daughters’ schools to say goodbye — which inadvertently continued to spread awareness.

Imogen’s social studies teacher at Middlesex inquired as to where her mother was going — which prompted a classroom discussion about the mission of Every Mother Counts.

Both of Kerr’s daughters proudly wear their Every Mother Counts logo shirts to run — and elsewhere.

Kerr told Turlington that she’s created this “really powerful symbol” — and said it is nothing to be understated, and that the awareness will continue to grow.

“And the lives that you’ve touched, I got to see it in Africa. I literally got back to my office and was thinking, You really should feel like a hero after giving birth. I admire you for everything you’ve done. It’s more than just a movement — you’ve created something larger than all of us — and we’ll all stand by you to see it through,” Kerr said.

All body and mind health is a crucial goal for Turlington, a yoga instructor.

Turlington said there is a correlation between maternal death and health systems and the status of women, and she pointed out that Kerr was also an inspiration.

“When I look at you, and your position, and our ability to inspire so many women, and to sort of be on the front lines, of what you do, that’s the real change — the more women in positions of power, the more that they will take care of other women and make sure they get the services and support they need,” Turlington said to Kerr.

Turlington and Kerr said that on the Tanzania trip they talked about women in Kerr’s position, in corporate jobs, who worry so much about taking time off or being judged by others.

“They need some examples of someone who says, ‘Hey, I did this. And I’m an amazing mom, and I have a life for myself out of my family and I also love my work,” Turlington said.

The cause and visiting “the field,” Turlington said, has “changed everything for me.”

“I’d love to be in the field every day, but I can’t do that as a mom, as much as I would like to be in two places at the same time, I would love it so much,” she said.

Turlington, who is married to actor Edward Burns, said she would love to bring her children someday —  and to help them feel “part of it.”

“They are seeing how much it gives me to give back, and give myself to others, and also be able to be there and present and make sure their needs are met. That is the best possible way I can be a mother to them.

“Every day is not always as successful as before, that’s always a goal. I try, and when it isn't working, I’m honest,” she said, much like running EMC. “I’ve never run a non-profit before, so I just say, ‘We are learning these lessons together.’ I think being honest is a good thing,” she said.

Kerr said that what moves her is Turlington’s passion, with a purpose.

“Passion without purpose is just vapor,” Kerr said.

“I think meeting you and feeling your passion and understanding has given me a deeper sense of compassion — I truly believe compassion can’t be taught. It means you want to give back and not want anything in return. And to learn that in my 40s is really phenomenal — I feel really blessed,” Kerr said.

For Mother’s Day, EMC is selling items on its website with its signature orange rose logo, and the hashtag Pass the #OrangeRose, to raise awareness.

Visit everymothercounts.org for more information.

editor@darientimes.com