Q&A with Marla Hodes of the Ethiopian Family Fund

By Katie Kingsporn

In 2006, Marla Hodes traveled to Ethiopia to visit her brother-in-law, the renowned American doctor Dr. Rick Hodes, who has long performed life-changing medical procedures in the African country.

What she encountered there was a culture rich with colors, smiles, and big-hearted generosity, but also one beset by poverty, HIV/AIDS, lack of education, and a dearth of medical care for the destitute and dying. It was a place where women who contracted HIV/AIDS — often due to the infidelity of their husbands — were ostracized and left to care for their children with next to no resources.

Hodes was so moved by the experience that she came home and immediately launched a nonprofit with friend Melanie Robbins. The Ethiopian Family Fund was born. Ten years later, the nonprofit has grown into a multi-pronged agency that helps HIV-infected Ethiopian women lift themselves out of poverty through education, business resources, and access to health care and support.

Hodes took a moment to talk about EFF’s work.

 What prompted you to found the organization?

We went over there to make a student film about Rick and his work. While we were there, we discovered there were two issues that really touched our hearts — one was girls’ education; the other was helping women who had been ostracized from society because of having HIV. The people of Ethiopia are so loving, so kind and gentle, and very proud of their culture and families. We really wanted to help them have a better life, so we came back and started the Ethiopian Family Fund.

While we were in Ethiopia we met a woman named Roman Kifle. She inspired us and helped us. Her passion is helping women and empowering women. Roman is our person on the ground in Ethiopia; she oversees all of our programs. We started our work with 20 little girls who we sent to school for a year, and we have continued to support them for years now. We then started working on an HIV project called Project Hopeful, where we provide skilled training and microloans to women to start small businesses. One of the main inspirations for this was to enable HIV positive women to keep their kids with them.

 Who do you serve?

The Project Hopeful Sisterhood serves women. Our criteria are women who are very poor, have children, are HIV positive, and really need help. They need to be well enough in order to be able to start a business. The government identifies the women, and then we sit down with them, talk to them, and find out about their medical history, situation, children, and income. We choose 10 women at a time per training program. They learn about money management, hygiene, taking their medicine, keeping their children healthy and in school, and a lot about micro financing. We ask them, what kind of business would you like to do? We have hairdressers; we have injera [traditional bread] makers. We have women who sell fruit and vegetables or charcoal on the street. It’s all across the board.

 What is your biggest challenge as an organization?

Our number one challenge is to keep these women really believing in themselves after the way they’ve been treated and how horribly they feel. We have support groups and counseling to support the women to be confident moms and breadwinners. None of them have a man in the family. Also, keeping them healthy and medically sound is important. We have a new emergency medical fund of $500 to help us with this challenge.

 What keeps you doing the work?

If you ever go visit Ethiopia you’ll understand — it’s so needed. It’s the poorest of the poor, but they don’t think they’re poor. They appreciate every little thing that they have. They are so caring, so loving. They are such a kind and gentle culture. It is easy to want to help.

 What are your goals for the future?

Our primary focus is to help more women get the psychological and medical treatments they need to help them overcome and succeed.

 Can you talk about the role TAB plays in your organization?

I can’t adequately express how much we appreciate TAB’s help. It’s such an honor to be a beneficiary. I love the work TAB does. At TAB, everybody knows what we’re there for; everybody understands what the money’s for. It’s just an incredible week — an incredible event. I know it has truly made a difference in the world. The Ethiopian Family Fun is greatly honored to be a TAB beneficiary.