When I learned about Grassroot Soccer, I signed up without even looking at the job description. I couldn’t believe that I had found an organization that combined my passion for soccer, interest in global health, and love for Africa.
Grassroot Soccer (GRS) is a nonprofit organization that harnesses young people’s interest in soccer to deliver HIV education across Africa. Through the generosity of the Weissman Fellowship, I spent 10 weeks this summer interning at GRS in Cape Town, South Africa.
Yes, I was an intern. I had to run packages to the post office, organize files, and break down cardboard boxes. But GRS also gave me the opportunity to get out in the field, own some projects, and really take on substantial responsibilities.
One of my projects was helping to organize a weeklong soccer and HIV education camp for kids during their school holidays. While conducting focus group interviews as part of our Monitoring and Evaluation Team, I was surprised when each kid told me that by far the most memorable part of the camp wasn’t the free lunch or the afternoon soccer matches, but the opportunity to learn about HIV. They all know AIDS made their aunt sick or their best friend’s dad die, but no one had explained to them what it is or how they can avoid becoming infected. For many in South Africa, HIV is a taboo subject, and the chance to have an open discussion with a knowledgeable adult really was the most meaningful thing for GRS participants about their school holidays.
At the graduation ceremony at the end of the week, as I stood handing out certificates and shaking each kid’s hand in congratulations (which is no easy feat in South Africa, where there seems to be at least 10 different ways one can shake hands), I felt electrified with the energy of 100 empowered youth who had finally been given the tools and knowledge they needed to remain HIV free.
The crowning jewel of my experience — better than the great surfing, beautiful hikes, delicious wine, or the tangible event planning skills that I acquired — was joining the GRS family. The people I met were truly amazing. The passion and dedication I saw in each of my co-workers gave me hope that despite the endless problems our world faces — from the HIV epidemic, to sex trafficking, to rising temperatures — there are people out there who care and are working to make a difference.
Back on campus, everyone is asking, “How was your summer?” Yet it’s impossible for me to express in a sentence my experience, which was so rich in memories made, lessons learnd, passions uncovered, and friendships formed.
I’ve returned to campus with a renewed sense of passion and purpose. Suddenly my work for the Millennium Campus Network, a student run-nonprofit that aids student groups fighting for the realization of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, seems much more meaningful. Yes, the problems we face today are real, difficult, complex, and often overwhelming. But my experience this summer has helped me believe that we can make real the dream of a world without poverty, a world where millions no longer die from curable diseases each year, and a world where human populations live in harmony with the natural environment. And I know I want to spend the rest of my life helping to make this dream a reality.