Christy Turlington Burns is a name that inspires nostalgia. She was a face of Calvin Klein in 1988; she starred in “Catwalk,” the 1995 documentary about her life in Milan, Paris and New York; and she’s most famously known as one third of “the Trinity” — a term coined by fashion journalist Michael Gross — with Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell.
But the 47-year-old New Yorker’s second act is proving much more impactful.
In 2010, Turlington Burns launched Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit committed to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, especially those in impoverished nations around the world. Since its inception, EMC has raised more than $13 million in donations and impacted more than 450,000 women in countries like Haiti, Tanzania, Uganda, India and even the U.S. On Oct. 9, she’s running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon — her second in Chicago and sixth overall — to raise awareness and donations for the organization alongside 37 members from her nonprofit’s team.
Turlington Burns runs Chicago because it’s one of the major U.S. cities with subpar statistics when it comes to maternal health. According to local nonprofit March of Dimes, more than 28 percent of deliveries in Chicago are by cesarean section (the World Health Organization’s recommended rate is 10 to 15 percent); and more than 15 percent of delivering women in the city received prenatal care deemed “inadequate” by the nonprofit.
But marathoning is no easy feat for raising awareness. “The first time [I ran a marathon] was the only time I took as much care, [because] I was following a very strict training schedule for beginners,” she says. “Since that time, I travel a lot full-time and I have kids, so I really have to squeeze the running in. … Whenever I get ready for the race, I just ramp up the mileage.” She also fits in bodywork like massages, acupuncture and physical therapy to stay in shape.
Her routine seems to be working: Last year in London, she beat her personal record with a time of 3 hours, 46 minutes. But for her, distance running is about more than staying in shape.
“Five miles is [the average] distance a woman might have to walk to access really basic care,” Turlington Burns says. “Running distance of any kind, to me, is such a visceral experience. When I gave birth the first and second times, the doula and midwives would use marathons as a metaphor for trying to get a sense of what my threshold was for pain or endurance … We’ve had thousands of people run with us [and] when they hear that connection, they make it their own.”
In fact, the idea for Every Mother Counts came in 2003, when a near-fatal complication during the birth of her daughter, Grace, got Turlington Burns thinking about maternal health. “I had a period of time trying to understand why, how does that happen and why didn’t I know more,” she says. At that time, global statistics showed that more than half a million women and girls died every year from pregnancy-related complications. “That just shocked me. I [assumed it was only] in very rare scenarios that a woman in the 21st century would die giving birth. I learned about what was happening in the developing world but, at the same time, became aware that the U.S. was not doing well. I was immediately drawn in and the first question I asked myself was, ‘What could I do?’ ”
As it turns out, she could do a lot. She began traveling to developing countries with humanitarian organizations like CARE and (RED), and went back to school to study for her master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. While there, she directed and produced the documentary film “No Woman, No Cry,” which tells the stories of pregnant women in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the U.S.
“It [became] clear to me that a film alone … was just the first step,” she says. “[Every Mother Counts] was born out of that: a need to put all the facts out there and educate people.”
When EMC began distributing funds, she focused on three main barriers facing pregnant women: transportation, education and supplies.
“The idea of getting a clean bar of soap and a razor blade to be able to cut an umbilical cord, a clean cloth to be able to deliver your child on — those small, simple things go a long way in the countries we work,” she says. “We don’t want to just jump in and leave. We want to leave wherever we were better than how we found it.”
Wherever her philanthropic drive takes her, Turlington Burns is always running. When we spoke to her, she had just returned from a trip to Haiti. “Whenever we go there, we make it a practice to run on a dirt road to the birth center,” she says. “It is symbolic for that average distance a woman will have to walk. You see women pregnant, old, young and carrying very heavy things on their heads or on their backs — it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what that would feel like.”
After debuting a second documentary film, “Every Mile, Every Mother” in 2014, EMC released a third short film series, “Giving Birth in America,” which takes a closer look at maternal health in New York, Florida and Montana. “We’re one of 13 countries that has a rising mother mortality rate and we’re one of the countries that spends the most on healthcare,” she says. The organization is now in pre-production on its fourth film in Louisiana.
“We can keep doing this as long as there are 50 states,” she says. “We’ll do this for as long as it takes.”
To donate, visit Crowdrise.com/christyruns2016.
Top photo: Turlington Burns at Bumi Sehat Foundation International in Bali, Indonesia in 2013. Every Mother Counts funded a grant to Bumi Sehat to establish a laboratory to diagnose and treat indirect causes of maternal death. | Photo by Josh Estey