Thursday, July 22, 2010

Finally... The Drew Carey Video:

Monday, July 12, 2010

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The World Cup and Grassroot Soccer: Fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa

Perie Zabathempu has begun her weeks during the World Cup by reciting a Monday-morning story to groups of children in their early teens who live in the shantytowns that fringe Port Elizabeth, in South Africa. It’s a different group of kids each week, but the story she tells is always the same. “In 2001, I got sick,” Perie says, “but I didn’t know why.”

Perie is in her thirties and has a kind and lovely face. She tends to squint ever so slightly when in conversations or when talking to a group, as if she is listening with her eyes all the while. She has told her story many times and she gets through it confidently, without so much as a shudder. But she tells it softly, too, and the children trust her right away.

“It turned out I was HIV-positive,” she tells them. “But I am surviving. I have a son and that’s what makes me strong. I want to live for him.”

I met Perie on a cold and wet Wednesday in June. I had taken a break from the soccer that had brought me to South Africa and was spending the day at the Molefu Primary School in New Brighton, a poor neighborhood just north of Port Elizabeth’s city center, not far from the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the site of eight World Cup matches. A strip of industrial warehouses stands between New Brighton and the Indian Ocean; the residential blocks are gray and low-slung and stretch on for miles. It is nothing like Summerstrand, the posh beachside community where my guesthouse was located on the other side of town, near the golf course and the university.

During the World Cup the Molefu Primary School has been taken over by Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization that uses soccer to help children fight HIV and AIDS across southern Africa. Every Monday a new group of fifty or so kids arrived to spend the week with counselors and soccer coaches. The children spent their mornings taking part in educational activities focusing on HIV and AIDS, then after lunch they split into co-ed teams to play some soccer.

“We deliberately make the soccer just for fun,” Mpumi Lallie, one of the Grassroot Soccer organizers and a colleague of Perie’s, told me. “Kids learn better when they’re enjoying what they’re doing.”

Health workers in South Africa—home to nearly six million HIV-infected people, more than any other country in the world—have been counting on the World Cup in their fight against HIV and AIDS. “One of the legacies that we’re hoping will take root is better health and prosperity for the entire continent,” said Brian Suskiewicz, an American doing volunteer work in southern Africa for Coaches Across Continents and WhizzKids United, two groups doing work similar to Grassroot Soccer. “The World Cup has focused attention on HIV/AIDS awareness, and that’s a great thing.”

At the primary school I joined Perie in a classroom where 15 children went through a series of activities designed both to demonstrate how HIV/AIDS is spread and to lessen the stigma that comes with the disease. Some of the activities were games that had the room ringing with laughter; others left the kids holding onto each other as they choked back tears. Not everything was about AIDS—the leaders tried to encourage the children to talk about any troubles they were having. At one point a boy, maybe 15 years old, walked to the front of the classroom, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, and read aloud about his struggles to deal with an adult in his home who routinely forced him to do drugs and drink alcohol. He read the note quietly and went back to his seat, where he was comforted by several of the others.

“We mix the serious with the fun,” said Perie. “Some of these kids have lost parents from HIV, some have been sexually abused, some arrive with empty stomachs. They open up and it gets very deep. We want to teach them that life is full of challenges, and they must expect that as they grow up.”

By starting off the week with their own personal stories, Perie and the other counselors hoped to show the kids that it’s okay to be vulnerable and show emotion. “I want to be honest with the kids so they can be open and honest with me,” she said. “They learn to trust and support each other.”

Sivuyile, a 16 year-old boy, told me that his father had recently suffered a stroke and that he and his six siblings got by on government hand-outs. “Dad was the bread-winner, and now nobody brings home any food,” he said. “It was good to open up about what’s happened to my family. And it helped me learn that if someone has HIV I must not discriminate against them. I must love and support them.”

As part of their plan to mix the fun and the serious, Grassroot Soccer had bought tickets for all the kids in the program to a World Cup match in Port Elizabeth for later that week. Sivuyile smiled when I asked him what he thought about the tournament being hosted in his country. “I feel happy,” he said. “I hope South Africa will win.”

It was raining after lunch, but the kids were not about to let that get in the way of their soccer games. They gathered under a covered pavilion, set up miniature goal posts, and played for nearly two hours on bricked-over concrete.

When the games finally ended I gathered my things and got ready to leave. But Perie motioned for me to wait. The children weren’t done quite yet. They came together, formed a circle, and then they began to sing.

Thankfully, I had a video camera.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Queen Sofia of Spain

She was once the princess of Greece and Denmark and now the Queen of Spain, but on Friday 09 July 2010, she was the guest of honor at the Khayalitsha football for Hope Center. Queen Sofia greeted skillz participants who were appropriately playing “find the ball,” a game whose title might describe Spain’s world-class style of play. However, this game is about HIV, not precision passing and hair-gel. Two teams stand opposite to each other passing a tennis ball behind their backs while the tennis ball is meant to represent HIV – the game symbolizes the difficulty of identifying an individual with HIV. Needless to say, the Queen was impressed by the games depth and tact, which led her to introduce herself to the young strategists. She then challenged the players to free kicks demonstrating her own aptitude for sport. Overall, the visit was a tremendous success and we were thrilled to share the final day of the Skillz Holiday programs with such an honorable guest.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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FIFA President welcomes next generation

Ten lucky young people had more than one reason to cheer today at Soccer City in Johannesburg. Not only were they heading to watch the much anticipated quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana courtesy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Ticket Fund but they were also invited by FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter to join him before the match to share their experience of participating in one of the social development programmes supported by the initiative.

‪Five young coaches from Grassroot Soccer, a non-governmental organisation who use football as a tool in the fight against HIV / Aids, were joined by five children from Sporting Chance, an organisation using the power of sport to break down social barriers and positively impact the lives of children. All ten had one thing in common, they each ‘earned’ a ticket for the match through their participation in the respective programmes. The youngsters would otherwise have been unable to attend a match had it not been for the support of the Ticket Fund which was created in line with the philosophy of the FIFA President to use the 2010 FIFA World Cup to give something back to the African continent.‬

‪After the meeting, an energised FIFA President commented: "I was extremely touched by these children who have endured so many struggles in their lives and given their very best to earn a ticket to a world cup match through the Ticket Fund. Seeing them so excited just to be in the stadium, seeing them dancing and laughing was amazing - and I have to say from my heart, it deeply moved me. The spirit and attitude of these young people is truly inspirational.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

US Soccer Advocate, Drew Carey, Writes GRS into His Soccer Saga

For those who do not associate Drew Carey with US Soccer – your life is about change.

The facts: Mr. Carey is a minority owner of the Seattle Sounders, a member of the USA World Cup Bid Committee, and occasional USMNT sideline photographer. He is a driving force in launching soccer to the heights of baseball, football, and basketball in the USA. Most importantly, he is now exploring the power of soccer beyond the field – hence his visit to the Khayelitsha Football for Hope center on July 1st.

The saga begins like this… Drew leaves his home state of Ohio for the biz in LA. As a Cleveland Indians fanatic, the thought of even watching Dodgers churned his stomach like week old sushi. This propelled him to pick up a new sport in which he has no allegiances – soccer. In fairy-tale fashion, he and Soccer hit it off. The love affair solidified during one of his early interviews in LA with a local producer. Drew was nervous for the interview, but the two found common ground through the language of soccer. In that moment, Drew recognized the uniting power of the sport. He now finds himself passionately involved with US Soccer and co- owns the only MLS team with a marching band.

Now to Grassroot Soccer… Drew met GRS founder Tommy Clark at a US Soccer Foundation dinner, which may or may not have had something to do with Mr. Carey’s visit.

On Thursday Morning, Drew ventured out to Khayelitsha to check out GRS’s famed Skillz Holiday program. Drew quickly joined campers in their opening circle and impressed them with his traditional African “Drew Dance” which lies somewhere on the continuum between the funky chicken and Shakira (video coming soon). From there, he spent the entire day amongst campers, absorbing valuable life lessons from GRS activities.

The program included a role-playing activity known as the Red-Card campaign, which struck a chord with Mr. Carey’s passion for improv. In this activity, one child takes on the role of a “victim” and the other a “deviant” (make plural to add risk) and the players enact a situation that requires a “Red Card for HIV Risk.” The purpose of the activity is to provide participants with practice for when he or she finds herself in a risky situation.

The day culminated when Drew decided to “lose the shoes” (a catchy GRS phrase) on the pitch for a friendly 5 a side match. After the game ended in a draw, he ventured into the main classroom where all the campers had congregated. He stood in front of the crowd and presented camp awards to teams and individuals with his talk-show host spunk. Then, he graciously thanked the Staff and Coaches and presented each of them with FIFA endorsed jerseys and official World Cup match soccer balls.

As this recap reflects, GRS is extremely impressed with Mr. Carey and all he is doing for the sport.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grassroot Coaches Share Their Experiences

The presence of a caring adult relationship is the number one determining factor for a child’s resilience. The Grassroot Soccer coaches strive to build these meaningful relationships with their campers in order to inspire them to make healthy choices and establish good habits early in their lives. In the following video, three coaches describe their drive to be Grassroot Soccer coaches; their personal connection to the HIV pandemic; and the impact that being a GRS coach has had on their own lives.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Skillz Star, Silumgile, Selected as Sony Flag-Bearer

At age 10, it might be hard for Silumgile to grasp the significance of being a flag-bearer in the first African World Cup. Silumgile is nervous because the whole world’s eyes will be on her, and she admits, “It is my first time being a flag-bearer.” Her mom, Nella, on the other hand, considers her daughter’s opportunity with the reverie of a miracle as she recalls the days growing up in Khayelitsha watching the local kids play “rag-ball.” When Silumgile walks onto the field she will see colorful fans and flashing lights; what her mom will see is a horizon of opportunities that her daughter's future promises.

The Sony ticket fund has provided 25 Skillz graduates, just like Silungile, with the privilege of carrying a nations flag at the 2010 World Cup. Skillz coaches select each flag-bearer based on their demonstrated leadership and courage during Skillz camps. These individuals embrace the values Skillz teaches by participating in critical discussions and encouraging teammates to follow suit.

One GRS program manager, Chris Barkley, believes that this opportunity will create a deeper connection between flag bearers and their communities, “Hopefully they will see themselves as role-models and grow into future leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” Silumgile will certainly draw the admiration of her peers, so it is important that the others understand that positive behavior is what made this opportunity possible for her. If this aftereffect occurs, it is a critical step towards a generation of resilient youth in local African communities.