Scoring big with Grassroot Soccer at SA AIDS 2019

GRS team
Aubrey Weber, Johanna Theunissen and Danya-Zee Pedra

The biennial South African AIDS Conference (SA AIDS 2019), which took place earlier this month in Durban, South Africa, was an opportunity to meet a diverse range of players in the field of HIV and AIDS -- and one of the most innovative and inspiring of these is definitely Grassroot Soccer (GRS), so the SHARE team was really excited to get the chance to chat with some of the organization’s coaches, or young adult mentors, and master trainers about the work they are doing and what brought them to the conference.

Photo courtesy of Grassroot Soccer

GRS is an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize youth in developing countries to overcome their greatest health challenges; live healthier, more productive lives; and be agents for change in their communities. It achieves its programmatic goals by focusing on what it refers to as the Three Cs: Curriculum, Coaches, and Culture. “Our SKILLZ evidence-based health curriculum is delivered by our coaches through soccer-based activities. Our coaches are well-trained to be caring mentors and to be people that don’t just talk to adolescents, but also listen. We also have our culture, which we build in a way that allows young people to start talking freely,” explain the team.

So what does GRS aim to achieve with these Three Cs? “The Three As: Assets, Access, and Adherence,” they answer. “We want to build assets in young people so that they have self-efficacy and believe in themselves. We also believe that while it is important for young people to seek out and access HIV and other sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, it is not enough for them to only do so once or twice. Youth need to be accessing services regularly based on their needs in order to be adherent not just to treatment, but to a healthy lifestyle in general as well.”

GRS team
GRS coaches and master trainers. Back (from
left): Thabile Nene, Nokulunga Pretty Hlengwa 
and Cassandra Kholeka Shezi. Front (from
left): Thokozani Majozi (Programme Manager),
Dennis Dube and Lwazi Manelisi Mgenge

Among other pioneering approaches to reaching and empowering youth, GRS is also a trailblazer when it comes to challenging gender norms. “Soccer is often seen as a ‘male’ activity, but we encourage young girls to get involved and create a safe space where both boys and girls can communicate freely, sharing how they feel about things and how they can support each other to reach their goals in life,” the team emphasizes. But why soccer? “Soccer is a universal language that almost everyone can understand. When we do these activities, kids are having fun. But while they are having fun, they are also learning. Using the language of soccer makes it easier for us to explain difficult messages through metaphors, such as aiming for goals in soccer and how we can do the same in life. Or how dribbling a soccer ball is similar to dribbling our way through life and navigating challenges. They are able to link the game to what is happening in their lives, and this helps them to relate to these important issues which affect their lives.” 

Coaches also use these soccer metaphors to affirm and empower young people. “We call them captains, we call them team players. This builds self-efficacy within them. It builds a strong team even when we are done with our interventions. We still have that strong team that was formed because of Grassroot Soccer.”

Leveraging partnerships with organizations such as AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is another key ingredient in GRS’s success. Since 2017, AHF has funded the organization’s efforts to support adolescents living with HIV to adhere to treatment, achieve viral suppression, have increased access to services, and lead happy and healthy lives. AHF also runs a clinic in KwaZulu-Natal province serving people living with HIV, where GRS works with adolescents attending the clinic. “We believe in the power of partnerships. We believe that we can’t do everything on our own. For this reason, we look for formal partnerships with different organizations so that we can scale up our programs.”

GRS blog
Photo courtesy of Grassroot Soccer

SA AIDS 2019 offered an ideal opportunity for the team to build these partnerships – both existing and potential – as well as bring back information to continue to improve its programming. “We are here to learn best practices from other people so we can better support our adolescents. This includes programs for voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC), mental health, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and LGBTQ youth so we can learn how to be inclusive of everyone,” says the team. “But we also came here to share our model – what we do to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people in different communities.”

To learn more about Grassroot Soccer’s work, and find out how to get involved, visit its website here.


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