By Lisa Rubenson
In 2006, before Nyla Rodgers became the founder and CEO of the international nonprofit Mama Hope, she was 26, living a fun, friend-filled life in San Francisco, working as a director of programs for the Pacific Rim Foundation. She had already earned two degrees, traveled the world and had come back to her native California to build her career in a cosmopolitan city that happened to be a bridge away from where she grew up in Marin County.
As an only child raised by a single mother, Nyla and her mother, Stephanie, were very close. They loved that they were living near each other again and could spend time together. Then everything changed in an instant. Stephanie was diagnosed with an aggressive, late stage cancer, and Nyla moved home to take care of her.
“My mother was everything to me,” she says. “She got sick so fast, and I felt forsaken. There was so much I didn’t know yet, so much more I needed to learn from her.”
After her mother died, Nyla felt angry and disconnected from everything and everyone—including her faith. A little while later, Nyla was offered a contract job in Kenya. She knew her mother had been sending support to a young man there named Bernard, and the job posting was close to where he lived. Nyla and her mother had always dreamed of flying together to visit Bernard, and now Nyla had a chance to make the trip herself.
Nyla went to Kenya, met Bernard and planted two trees with him to commemorate Stephanie. Then Nyla met Anastasia Juma, a woman from Bernard’s village. Anastasia asked Nyla if she’d like to meet some other people who had known her mother. Nyla was drawn to this warm woman who seemed to know so much about her, so she accepted the invitation.
When she arrived, Nyla was welcomed with hugs and people singing Amazing Grace, the same song that had played at her mother’s funeral. Nyla was overcome with emotion.
“I didn’t know these people, but I felt like I was home,” she says. “This was a community that understood loss and perseverance. There was a recognition of our shared humanity.”
Anastasia and others had arranged for a memorial service to honor Nyla’s mother, and the whole village attended. It was then that Nyla learned the extent of her mother’s involvement. Stephanie had been helping a community of women in the village set up a table bank that enabled them to start their own businesses. And there was more.
Before she passed, Nyla’s mother had called Anastasia to say she was dying and wouldn’t be able to help anymore. She also said, “I have a daughter who will continue my work.” Anastasia then told the people in her village that they “must pray for this woman’s daughter to come to them.” There Nyla was, months later, hearing these things for the first time.
“My mother’s beautiful heart was right there,” she says, “with me and with all of these people. I’d never seen impact like what my mother was able to achieve by giving directly to the people in Anastasia’s community.” Nyla knew then she would spend the rest of her life working to honor her mother’s legacy.
She returned to San Francisco to raise money for a Kenyan health clinic. On Mother’s Day, she wrote a letter to everyone she knew asking them to help fund it. They did, and soon Nyla was back in Kenya working to make the clinic a reality. After that, she helped another community leader in Tanzania fund a school for vulnerable children. The more people she met, the more projects she wanted to be a part of. Within months, Nyla formed Mama Hope and began putting together a business plan and a group of trusted advisors and investors.
“We all have a story,” says Nyla, “but we all have the ability to choose a different story for ourselves. I had to find a way to turn the loss of my mother into something else. I took all the love I had for her, this leftover love, and created a new story that became Mama Hope.”
The mission of Mama Hope
Instead of a traditional, top-down model of philanthropy where funding groups dictate the projects, Mama Hope takes an eye-level, peerto-peer approach. They work directly with established non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) to understand the needs of a particular community and build partnerships with those already making a difference there.
“Community ownership is the key,” says Nyla. “These leaders know what they need to achieve long-term success.” Mama Hope is there to listen and to help build the funding and operational framework that will make their particular vision a reality.
Mama Hope reports that they now operate in eight countries, including Ghana, Guatemala, Ecuador, India, Kenya, Uganda and, most recently, the U.S. They have trained 117 Global Advocates through their immersive, nine-month fellowship that aims to educate the next leaders in human-centered, sustainable development. Each advocate is paired with one of Mama Hope’s community partners and commits to raising a minimum of $20,000 that goes directly into the hands of the people on the ground. More than $2.1 million has funded 151 projects that have provided access to healthcare, education, food, water security and livelihoods for 817,068 people (and counting).
Sustainability from the start
As Mama Hope marks its 10-year anniversary, Nyla finds time to appreciate the legacy she and her team have been able to build in her mother’s honor. They are now looking at ways to make their funding models and training programs more scalable.
“Mama Hope has always been about transforming lives while transforming the sector,” says Nyla. “We were among the first to talk about sustainability, and now we’re looking at ways to help our global advocates and partners share their knowledge and reach even more people.”
As long as there are problems to solve and people willing to work together to solve them, it’s clear that Nyla’s story, as well as the story of Mama Hope and its community-based partners, will continue to be written and reimagined well into the future.