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Using Soccer to Fight HIV


Fortune, an orphan herself, now helps other children learn about HIV and provides the emotional support they need to deal with growing up.
When Fortune's mother died, Fortune says that she was too young—at age six—to understand the loss. When she lost her father to AIDS six years later and had to live with her uncle, she felt the loneliness that goes along with not having parents. She received scholarships to allow her to complete her secondary education when her uncle wasn't able to pay for her fees. Once she graduated, Fortune discovered Grassroots Soccer.

Grassroots Soccer is an innovative organization that uses the power of soccer as an entry point to achieve its main objective of providing rigorous health education, focusing on HIV and AIDS. The program started in Zimbabwe in 2003 and reaches youth aged 11-18. Led by coaches, in addition to engaging students in critical learning about HIV prevention, the program provides psychosocial support and the opportunity for kids to form trusting relationships with responsible adults who are role models. The role model component is especially important because many of the kids in the program don't have positive role models at home. The program consists of 14 sport modules that use soccer and games to engage students in fun ways of understanding important information about HIV and health issues.

A grant from the USAID-supported Children First project has allowed a local NGO to provide health education and psychosocial support through sport programming to nearly 3000 students.
When Fortune heard about Grassroots, she was too old to be a participant, but wanted to be a part of the organization and offered to be a volunteer facilitator. After standing out as a committed and passionate volunteer, she went on to intern at the head office. She says that she wanted to be involved because "I felt that as an orphan, I could help other children like me, just by sharing what I've been through."

While her father was sick, no one explained to Fortune about HIV or helped her in the grieving process after his death. Years later, she silently suffered with the shame of losing a parent to AIDS when she discovered her father's death certificate. She now says, "If I had participated in the Grassroots Soccer program when I was younger I think I would have dealt with my father's situation in a different way… If I knew then what I know now about HIV I might have understood what was going on."

In addition to being an enjoyable way for kids to learn and internalize important information, the Grassroots approach of using fun and games achieves results. In a 2007 evaluation, it was found that children who went through the program had significantly reduced incidences of multiple sex partners compared to children who did not participate.

In addition to providing a small grant, Children First, with funding from USAID, has worked closely with Grassroots Soccer to improve its programming and financial management capabilities. Because of this, Grassroots Soccer was able to expand its program to reach 3000 children in Bulawayo schools this year and train Fortune in the skills necessary to deliver the program. "I can relate to the kids, so I can help them," she says.

Having lost both her parents, Fortune understands the stigma and shame that goes along with being an orphan but says that "In the classroom and on the street there is judgement, but on the field there is no judgment. It's about being a team." The Grassroots Soccer program gives children like Fortune the chance to grow up to be healthy, well adjusted, and supported teenagers and adults who can go on to help others in need, as Fortune has.