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 Hollys dad was diagnosed
with Parkinsons, the husband-and-wife team created the HollyRod
Foundation. Though too late to help Hollys dad, who died of
his disease a few years ago, the couple is determined to help find a cure
for Parkinsons 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 Parkinsons
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 Parkinsons
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
werent able to take care of himthen what? We all know
the health-care situation in this country. Thats 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 Parkinsons. Were all each other
has, and hes in a corner in a ball, and he cant get out of
that ball because he cant afford to medicate.
Then we said, We
need to expand this and help other people with their quality of life.
Thats where the HollyRod Foundation came in. Its grown. We
do events around Super Bowl time in the Los Angeles area. Weve expanded
our mission a little bit with the kids arm, HollyRod4Kids, to help
and support childrens causes. So its really been an amazing
blessing. Whenever you have something tragic happen, it really is true
that when you focus on helping other people, you dont forget the
pain, but youre somehow a little more OK with the thing thats
a bummer in your life. We firmly believe that youve got to balance
out the earth by giving back to it in some way. Its 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. Im 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
HRP: He came down
with it around the time when the Internet was just getting started. Information
wasnt as readily available as it is now. There were some breakthroughs.
Id have to say that if wed 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 Parkinsons now. But with all the ethical issues
with the stem cellsthat 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 wont be able to afford the cure.
My father wasnt really the beneficiary of a lot of things, but there
were some new medications. Theres a lot more available now, and
sadly hes 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. Were
actively seeking another corporate partnership with a pharmaceutical company.
Were 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 theyre 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 Parkinsons. Were 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 were reaching out to as well. We have really great
corporate sponsorships that have nothing to do with Parkinsons 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
were looking for has a few more zeros to it.
CC: Do you know
Medtronic and what they do?
HRP: Ive heard
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: Ive seen
something on him recently.
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 Parkinsons disease. They have a
foundationyou might find it interesting to talk with them.
HRP: Ill definitely
look more into that, because thats exactly what were doing
now. We hired a new executive director and were really working hard
to get more done. Weve been very event-driven, celebrity-driven,
begging our celebrity friends to come and show their faces and raise some
money. But we havent 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 whats going
on. But theyre 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 Mervyns 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 Parkinsons cause really wasnt on their
radar as far as their corporate mission. When they brought me onboard,
one of the things that we did was a childrens carnival. Wed
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 childrens 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. Its one thing to tell kids about the starving
children in Africa, but when they sit down and connect with them, that
was justyou cant even describe what thats like. They
really came back changed and generally respectful about everything. Theyre
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. Its 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 havent been opened yet. Theres no money
allocated for them. The red tape is crazy. If youre looking from
the childrens 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? Youve 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 wouldnt 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 schoolseverything.
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 didnt
need celebrities. They didnt need anybody. They just rolled up and
they were determined women and you couldnt say no to them on Capitol
Hill. And I realized that shes right. There really is no person
whos spearheading the childrens 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. Weve allocated quite a bit of money
in South Africa, where we visited, as well as in the Ninth Ward area of
New Orleans. Im thinking that its really more of a quality-of-life
issue for children, who are really facing some unbelievable uphill circumstances.
Now were 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 Childrens 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 dont know if youve 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
Volume 2007 Issue 2