Robin was chosen 2011 CNN Hero of the Year—called "an awards show for the selfless"—by thousands of voters worldwide. She attended the ceremony with her mother, Crescensia Munar Lim, and husband, Will Hemmerle.
Growing up on a shady block of Fairfield’s East Kirkwood Avenue, with its jagged brick sidewalk and twice daily churn of the railcars, I found that life was simple in a way that seems almost quaint. School. Meditation. Play.
Robin Lim lived two blocks down our sleepy street in a house with four children, just like ours. But Robin was different. She was like a window into a bigger world. She was well-traveled, beautiful, and exotic, and her children had decidedly unusual names.
My mother was close friends with Robin, and would share with me random factoids about her, which I relished. Robin, she told me, had given birth to all of her children at home—even giving birth to Zion in a tub of water. It only furthered my impression of her as a mystic.
But as the years passed and our lives expanded beyond the confines of Fairfield, Robin slowly slipped from my consciousness as she flowed out into the world. And that’s where my story ends and Robin’s begins . . . or at least the story of how she would become known as Ibu “Mother” Robin, an acclaimed midwife, women’s advocate, and community organizer.
Robin found her way to Bali, where she’s left many more imprints on the lives of not just the children she greeted into the world, but on whole communities.
Fairfield is one of those communities where Robin left her mark, evidenced by the proclamation of Tuesday, November 13, as “Robin Lim Day” by Mayor Ed Malloy. She’ll be returning to Fairfield to accept the honor and give a free lecture on midwifery and her work in Indonesia at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center at 8 p.m. She plans to take the opportunity to raise awareness about the illegality of midwifery in Iowa, which she calls home and where she still votes.
“Clearly some of my sister midwives are undervalued,” says Robin, whom I can’t bring myself to call Mrs. Lim, even for this article. “I do feel November 13 should be about advocating for the birth keepers in Iowa, and pointing out the fact that the U.S.A. spends more on childbirth technology than any other country on earth, yet ranks number 50 in maternal mortality—that means 49 countries are doing better than we are.”
A Tireless Worker for Children
She calls herself a “baby catcher,” but Robin is better known as 2011 CNN Hero of the Year in addition to other noteworthy accolades, including Alexander Langer Peace Award recipient and soon-to-be “Midwife of the Year” from the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. But her near-celebrity status today is a far cry from where her journey began.
Two decades earlier, Robin had witnessed a profound need for affordable maternity services in Indonesia, where new mothers giving birth in a hospital are not allowed to hold or take their baby home until the bill has been paid in full. Too many are too poor and end up not seeking health care. Maternal mortality rates there are 31 times the U.S. average.
She started offering midwifery services out of her home in Bali, but an expanding need repeatedly challenged her to do more. She opened Bumi Sehat (whose name translates to “Healthy Mother Earth”), a free clinic and birthing center, and just a few years later, in 2004, found herself navigating the aftermath of a massive tsunami. She and other first responders from Bumi Sehat dispatched to aid disaster victims in Aceh, which eventually became a permanent second location. She later used her newfound disaster-response skills to aid victims of the earthquake that leveled parts of Haiti in 2010.
Robin Lim talks with author Elizabeth Gilbert in Bali.
Her work caught the attention of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, who famously spent several months in Bali. The author wrote about and advocated for Robin on her website, exposing Bumi Sehat’s work to millions of loyal readers.
“The woman appears to never sleep,” Gilbert writes on her site. “Robin Lim is what we should strive to be—a great, abundant, generous, warm, and tirelessly running faucet of humanity and grace.”
Bumi Sehat’s work was gaining notoriety well beyond the borders of Indonesia, and soon landed Robin a spot as a finalist for a CNN Hero of the Year award. After 11 weeks of public voting, she was named winner in December 2011. In addition to the $300,000 that came with the award, offers of assistance—and a lot of newfound attention—poured in.
“The CNN Hero award has helped me to reach a tremendous number of health care providers,” Robin said. She’s capitalized on the visibility by actively writing grant applications to keep Bumi Sehat expanding in services, staff, and medications. USAID is currently reviewing her application to fund midwifery skills and educational seminars in Indonesia, Robin says. Other Bumi Sehat donors are presently sponsoring the education of a dozen women to become midwives, teachers, or nurses.
It’s those small, but consistent donors who Robin says really keep Bumi Sehat’s mission alive. “To be honest, it’s the regular hard-working people who want to share the money they have set aside for charity—an organization with results they can see and feel. I have families in Fairfield who have given $100 every month for years now. That’s true devotion.”
The need for Bumi Sehat’s services is ever-growing. Poverty that renders so many families unable to afford safe childbirth has been further compounded by the effects of multiple natural disasters, economic instability, and social unrest.
“This strife is worsening,” Robin says, adding that Bumi Sehat provided 33,382 incidents of patient care and services in 2011. The need has driven Robin to continually expand the scope of Bumi Sehat to include community health outreach, elderly yoga, birth attendant training, disaster preparedness, acupuncture and homeopathic medicine, youth education, village-based recycling, and organic gardening.
It will expand again soon. The CNN award money is earmarked for building a new, earthquake-resistant clinic in Bali. The lease of the existing clinic expires in three years, and Robin is eager to expand staff and services. She hopes to break ground on the new facility this year, and is already building a vision for a Bumi Sehat in the mountain region of the Philippines.
Meanwhile, she continues to “catch babies” almost daily. Last year, the Bumi Sehat clinics delivered 530 babies.
Robin walks me through a typical day for her, which, to summarize, sounds sleepless, emotional, inspiring, loving, heartbreaking, demanding, and generally exhausting in just about every way imaginable. She remains surprisingly resilient. “I am making a note to self to ask my husband how his day was . . . most likely, equally as busy as mine,” she says.
Between assisting births and running two clinics, Robin is also a prolific author of 21 books. Her latest, co-written by Marie Zenack, is coming out this year: The Natural Family Planning Workbook: A Lifestyle of Nonviolence.
“It will save lives,” she said, adding that she’s already working on two more books. She also finds herself in demand as a speaker. She’s hoping she can use some of her newfound celebrity to draw some attention to midwifery in Iowa.
“In Iowa, midwifery is very controversial, and I hope to shed some good light on the evidence-based medical fact that giving birth at home or at a childbirth center with a skilled midwife has been found to be more than safe,” she says.
She’ll also speak at a handful of other events across the country, including the Breech Birth Conference in Washington, DC, which will be screening Guerrilla Midwife, an award-winning documentary about Robin by her daughter Deja Bernhardt.
Since Robin has no plans to stop her work anytime soon, I ask what she ultimately wants to get out of all that Bumi Sehat is and will become. “I want to heal the earth, or at least do my part,” she says. “And of course, peace on earth, one baby, one mother, one family at a time . . . as soon as possible, please.”
For more information, or to view Robin’s Fairfield talk, visit www.bumisehatbali.org or www.youtube.com/bumisehatfoundation. Attend a free screening of Guerrilla Midwife at the Fairfield Public Library on November 8 at 8 p.m.
To support Robin’s work, mail your contribution to Sakthi Foundation, 1507 Lone Oak Circle, Fairfield, Iowa 52556 Attn: Bumi Sehat. “Thank you for your support,” Robin says. “Iowa is truly a sister of Bali, and has made sure that Bumi Sehat keeps on going.”