Holly Robinson Peete - Interview with Chet Cooper
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As a budding star, Holly Robinson Peete was eager to play opposite her dad, Matt Robinson, the lovable Gordon on Sesame Street, but she flubbed her line. That turned out to be only a speedbump on the road to success. She went on to work consistently in television on such shows as 21 Jump Street, and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, as well as the upcoming ABC pilot Football Wives, with her mother Delores behind the scenes as her manager. Getting a gig on Wives is ironic because for more than a decade, the actress has been married to Rodney Peete, who played in the NFL for many years. After Holly’s dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the husband-and-wife team created the HollyRod Foundation. Though too late to help Holly’s dad, who died of his disease a few years ago, the couple is determined to help find a cure for Parkinson’s and to assist those living with the condition. As parents of four: twins Ryan & RJ, as well as Robinson and Roman, they were also inspired to start HollyRod4Kids, to advocate for those too young to fight for themselves.

Chet Cooper: Why did you start the HollyRod Foundation?

Holly Robinson Peete: Rodney and I created it over 10 years ago because my father had Parkinson’s for many years, and we had to support him. We were so thankful that Rodney had a job in the NFL and I had TV work in order to support him. But my father was an amazing writer. He originated the part of Gordon on Sesame Street, and went on to write and produce The Cosby Show for the whole run of the show. He had such an amazing career, and Parkinson’s disease got him at 46, very young. It was during a time when I was in college and it just wiped him out on so many levels. And as it progressed, and he got more and more debilitated, it became really difficult for him to do pretty much anything. So he lived with it for 20-some years, and passed away four years ago. But about 10 years ago, I was moaning and groaning about, “Why me? Why my dad?” My husband came to me and said, “You know what? The worst-case scenario would be if we weren’t able to take care of him—then what?” We all know the health-care situation in this country. That’s when we started to go on television programs and talk about what my dad was going through. Afterwards, we started getting a lot of letters. People were saying, “I live in Harlem. My uncle has Parkinson’s. We’re all each other has, and he’s in a corner in a ball, and he can’t get out of that ball because he can’t afford to medicate.”

Then we said, “We need to expand this and help other people with their quality of life.” That’s where the HollyRod Foundation came in. It’s grown. We do events around Super Bowl time in the Los Angeles area. We’ve expanded our mission a little bit with the kids’ arm, HollyRod4Kids, to help and support children’s causes. So it’s really been an amazing blessing. Whenever you have something tragic happen, it really is true that when you focus on helping other people, you don’t forget the pain, but you’re somehow a little more OK with the thing that’s a bummer in your life. We firmly believe that you’ve got to balance out the earth by giving back to it in some way. It’s kind of like our family credo. So HollyRod has been such a blessing. So many amazing things have happened to me as a result of really trying to hone the philanthropic arm of my life. I’m really glad that we started it, and I think my dad would be proud of it.

CC: While your father was alive, was he able to be treated with any of the newer medications for Parkinson’s?

HRP: He came down with it around the time when the Internet was just getting started. Information wasn’t as readily available as it is now. There were some breakthroughs. I’d have to say that if we’d had a different administration during most of the time that he was sick, I really feel we would be closer to a total cure for Parkinson’s now. But with all the ethical issues with the stem cells—that field of research was probably the most promising thing from which he might have benefited. He did have some stem cells implanted in his brain and they really did help alleviate some of his symptoms, but he was too far into the disease, too debilitated to really benefit from some of the treatments. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do HollyRod as well, because we really felt as though, for a while there, a cure was coming on a fast track. But so much government bureaucracy has blocked a lot of the progress. There are a lot of people for whom a cure is going to be way too late. So we wanted to really focus on those people, or on those who won’t be able to afford the cure. My father wasn’t really the beneficiary of a lot of things, but there were some new medications. There’s a lot more available now, and sadly he’s not here to reap the benefits.

CC: Are you allied with any of the companies working in this area?

HRP: We have worked in the past with Novartis, as well as some other companies. We’re actively seeking another corporate partnership with a pharmaceutical company. We’re in talks right now to align HollyRod with some pharmaceutical companies that we can brand with. For a while there, the pharmaceutical companies had stopped supporting foundations. There was some kind of corporate policy where they all stopped doing it. But now they’re back on board with foundations, helping and giving in-kind products. We have a compassionate care center down at the University of Southern California, where we give out medications and samples and physical and occupational therapy just to help people get through this disease. So we reach out to many pharmaceutical companies for in-kind donations, such as samples of Sinemet, which is the most widely used drug for Parkinson’s. We’re really trying to line ourselves up to get more involved with pharmaceuticals.

CC: What about medical technology companies like Medtronic?

HRP: There are other companies that we’re reaching out to as well. We have really great corporate sponsorships that have nothing to do with Parkinson’s disease, such as our alliances with Anheuser Busch and Outback Steakhouse, which have been supporting us all these years. We do have a relationship with Teva Neuroscience, which helps us a lot. But the kind of underwriting we’re looking for has a few more zeros to it.

CC: Do you know Medtronic and what they do?

HRP: I’ve heard of them.

CC: They are a leader in the area of neuromodulation. I interviewed Earl Bakken, the founder. He is the father of the wearable pacemaker.

HRP: I’ve seen something on him recently.

CC: Neuromodulation uses electrical stimulation in a medical procedure to alter nervous system functioning. Neurostimulator probes are put into the brain creating a programmable therapy that manages how neurons fire in specific mapped areas. This therapy is used with people whose drugs are ineffective for controlling their tremors due to Parkinson’s disease. They have a foundation—you might find it interesting to talk with them.

HRP: I’ll definitely look more into that, because that’s exactly what we’re doing now. We hired a new executive director and we’re really working hard to get more done. We’ve been very event-driven, celebrity-driven, begging our celebrity friends to come and show their faces and raise some money. But we haven’t been as involved in the scientific area as we want, even though we do have scientists to whom we funnel money at USC, who are in the trenches and who inform us about what’s going on. But they’re scientists, not fundraisers. So we are working to make more connections.

CC: Your experience with your father led you to create this foundation, and earlier you mentioned doing something for children. Can you tell me more about that?

HRP: I had a brand of maternity clothes, and part of the deal with the line, which I did with Mervyn’s department store for about three years, was there had to be a philanthropic aspect to it. In other words, they had to donate to HollyRod. But the Parkinson’s cause really wasn’t on their radar as far as their corporate mission. When they brought me onboard, one of the things that we did was a children’s carnival. We’d just invite our friends and their kids and it turned out to be this really wonderful event. We raised a lot of money. At the end, I basically farmed out $100,000 or so to several children’s charities that I researched and liked. We did that a few years ago. But we recently came back from this trip to South Africa where we were invited to go with Oprah Winfrey and her delegation to open her school there, and I had a sense that it was time to rethink the HollyRod4Kids mission.

CC: So that trip had an impact on you.

HRP: It was unbelievable. We took our children. It was an insane trip, but boy, was it worth it. Our kids visited homes run by 11-year-olds, because the parents had been decimated by HIV-AIDS. It’s one thing to tell kids about the starving children in Africa, but when they sit down and connect with them, that was just—you can’t even describe what that’s like. They really came back changed and generally respectful about everything. They’re nine, nine, four and two, and it impacted them at different levels. We connected with several organizations over there that really support these households that are run by these kids. So we really felt that we wanted to expand our mission to the quality of life for children. It’s very broad, but probably specializing and focusing on children in southern Africa, as well as in New Orleans. We went and made several visits to New Orleans post-Katrina, and the children have just been completely forgotten down there. Schools haven’t been opened yet. There’s no money allocated for them. The red tape is crazy. If you’re looking from the children’s perspective, it can feel like a hopeless scenario.

So we went down there several times and talked with them. I had a really great moment recently, because I went to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and I got a chance to ask her about it in front of a lot of people. My knees were knocking. My husband was like, “What are you about to do? You’ve got the microphone in your hand.” I asked her very straightforward questions, because they were talking about 9/11 widows and how they came to Washington and they wouldn’t be denied. I said, “With all due respect to them, where is the money for the people in New Orleans? I know that the 9/11 widows lost their loved ones, but these people lost their entire infrastructure, their homes, their jobs, their livelihood, their schools—everything. Where is that money?” So she thought it was a very good question and said during the time of 9/11, there was a Democratic Congress. She gave a very partisan sort of answer. But the bottom line was, what she said to me really kind of made me think that there was no face for these children. There was no face for them. The 9/11 widows, they didn’t need celebrities. They didn’t need anybody. They just rolled up and they were determined women and you couldn’t say no to them on Capitol Hill. And I realized that she’s right. There really is no person who’s spearheading the children’s causes and getting it on the docket of some of these congressmen and senators.

So then I was sort of inspired and I thought about seeing if I could get some of these families to come with me to Capitol Hill to lobby for these children, because the children are just suffering so badly. So I think HollyRod4Kids is sort of still finding its mission. We’ve allocated quite a bit of money in South Africa, where we visited, as well as in the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans. I’m thinking that it’s really more of a quality-of-life issue for children, who are really facing some unbelievable uphill circumstances. Now we’re putting together our current carnival. I just went to New York and met with more corporations about reinventing the carnival with a slightly different mission, and doling the monies out to organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund and people who are really focused on these tangible missions.

CC: I would love to introduce you to a woman, Valerie Sobel. I don’t know if you’ve heard her name recently— she was in People magazine under a “Heroes” section. You mentioned red tape, which is so frustrating sometimes, and that problem also motivated her to set up her own philanthropy.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Holly Robinson Peete issue; Senator Harkin Letter—Community Based Services; Flash Action—Cool Web Games for Kids; Humor Therapy; Days Gone Bye Bye; Headlines—Segway Suit, Woodruff, Accessible Taxicabs and more; George Covington—Sorry Tail; Allen Rucker—The New: Recycled; Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss—Book Excerpt; Beyond Special Ed—Disability Legal Rights Center; Bob Woodruff—Back From Iraq Excerpt; Conference in Qatar—Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs; An Operation for Alzheimer's—Omentum Transfers; Troubles at Walter Reed—A Disturbing Report; Selma's House—North CArolina's First ABILITY House; Windmills—Leveling the Employment Playing Field; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Excerpts from the Holly Robinson Peete issue:

Holly Robinson Peete — Interview

Chris Burke — From Actor to Rock Star

Memory Lane — Dr. Small and Exercise your Brain

Stephen Mikailoglu — In Memory

Windmills — Leveling The Employment Playing Field

An Operation for Alzheimer's — Omentum Transfers

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