Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Inspiring Grassroot Soccer Story

Hi Everyone,

I wanted to share a story that has been circulating throughout the Grassroot Soccer community over the past few weeks. This story is particularly near and dear to my heart, and to the entire Port Elizabeth team, because this story comes from one of our coaches, and it is one of the experiences he has had working for Grassroot Soccer. Each Friday at our office all of our coaches come in for a Development Session, which involves going over announcements, meeting in their site group to talk about logistics for the week, and as a group they perform various activities which help them to become better at the jobs they do. I'll go into more depth about Fridays soon, because there is so much more to share about that day of the week, but I wanted to say that on a Friday a few weeks back, we did an activity called "most significant story", where coaches shared stories from students they have worked with over the years. We then voted on which story we felt was the most powerful, which was then going to be passed along to Cape Town, and then to potential donors and organizations interested in GRS. I am including this story in my post. If you would like to have this in a word document, please let me know and I am more than happy to pass it along! Thanks for reading, this is an incredible story and Glen is a wonderful person.

Finding Courage Through Skillz

As told by Grassroot Soccer Skillz Coach Siyabonga Glen Mgwadleni, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

I’ll never forget our first intervention at W.B. Tshume Primary School in Zwide, Port Elizabeth in August 2009. Coaches Mendisto, Amy, Nkadi and I were working with sixth grade boys and girls. When we began, it was clear that some students did not want to participate. The down-turned faces, the curious glances and the hushed whispers all said the same thing: the kids were uncomfortable. We learned later that they thought Grassroot Soccer was for little kids because they saw students just running around, and others did not want to participate because they knew we talk about HIV and AIDS and they feared being stigmatized.

The teacher at W.B. Tshume told us not to pressure those that did not want to participate and mentioned that several kids had personal/behavior problems. We felt like outsiders as we began to run Skillz practices with shy, reluctant kids. It was a monumental challenge. Some kids were absent for days at a time. It was difficult to tell if we were reaching anyone with our messages. One 17 year-old girl named Ntombi always caught my eye. She would just sit in the back, never speaking or participating in games. She was often absent too. When we did Team Talk she did not even look or listen to the other kids in her group. I feared that we were not reaching her and that we were letting her down.

The turning point of the intervention came during Practice 8, the final Skillz practice, which features an activity called “My Coach’s Story.” During the activity, we asked volunteers to come to the front of the class and share an experience that challenged them and explain how they triumphed in the face of adversity. “Volunteers only,” we repeated. There would be no pressure to perform. A young boy, one of our most enthusiastic participants, was the first to step forward. When his story concluded, he sat down, leaving the stage for a new presenter. As silence descended upon the room, I scanned the classroom for signs of life. No one could have predicated what happened next.

In the back corner of the room sat Ntombi, who had not spoken all week. Without lifting her gaze, she quietly got up from her chair and walked slowly down the aisle toward the front of the class. Her quiet confidence mirrored the class’s stunned silence.

In a soft but steady voice, she told the group that her mother was HIV positive and had been bedridden at Dora Nginza Hospital for the past six months. Because her mother had fallen ill, she had moved in with her aunt. But rather than love and support, Ntombi was met with scorn and disapproval. Ashamed of her sister’s “condition,” her aunt was determined to take it out on her young niece. She gained confidence with every word and slowly gained the courage to confess something she had never shared with anyone before.

In May 2009, one day after school, Ntombi went to Greenacres Mall with her brother’s friend. On the way back, he raped her. Despite the fear and pain that consumed her, Ntombi knew what she had to do. Ntombi went to the Dora Nginza Rape Crisis Centre, where one of the diagnostics is an HIV test. There she learned that she had, indeed, been infected with HIV. Shocked and confused, she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Without a strong support base at home, she chose to run away to live with a friend in Motherwell. This was why she had missed so many school days.

She didn’t have anyone. There was no one to protect her and no one to turn to. Although weakened by the experience, she was not broken. She still had the courage to confide in us, her Grassroot Soccer Coaches and fellow participants, to seek help from those who cared for her. She told us her story, and we connected her with the Ubuntu Education Fund, a long-standing partner of GRS that provides long-term counseling and support for youth in Port Elizabeth.

It has been four months since we completed our first intervention at W.B. Tshume Primary School. Ntombi is now attending counseling and is ready to disclose her status to her mother and her aunt. She said that things are much better in her life after sharing and telling other people about her story.

This year, when we went to her school, she was friendly and open and shared with us that she really liked the My Coach’s Story activity because she got to share what she was feeling inside. Now she is working toward the completion of grade seven. This time, when we were doing Team Talk, Ntombi told her friends the story of being raped by her brother’s friend. “Be careful,” she warned, “because even if people know you and offer you things you should not completely trust them.” She also participated in Risk Field and talked to the class about the danger of sugar daddies. Ntombi’s transformation from shy and reclusive to a classroom leader demonstrates the impact our program can have.

Now when we head to W.B. Tshume, students ask us to come early so they can tell us about their friends who also need help accessing counseling services, HIV testing, and rape victim support. These were the same students who wouldn’t even talk to us before, and now they are open to share and even help recruit kids for Grassroot Soccer programs. I am proud that, since 2006, our team in Port Elizabeth has touched the lives of more than 7000 youth like Ntombi. With the support of the Red Ribbon Foundation and others, we will continue to grow and expand our impact on the lives of South African youth.

This story was selected by GRS Coaches in Port Elizabeth using the Most Significant Change method of qualitative data collection, in which Coaches share stories with the group in response to a particular question/theme and vote on the story demonstrating the most significant impact.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Diamond City!

This is a group shot of the four of us on our visit to Kimberly, another GRS site in The Northern Cape. Kimberly is a huge mining city where three other interns are, so we went up there for the weekend to visit them. This picture was taken near "The Big Hole", Kim's biggest attraction, the place where thousands of diamonds were mined.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cool pictures

Just some cool pictures I thought you all would enjoy...

This is a picture of a lion that we got up close and personal with on Safari, apparently lions love hanging out in trees. Really cool to see these animals face to face in their natural habitat.

This one is of an epic sunset in the Serengeti

Safety and Security in South Africa

This picture is of Rosie, Anna and I on our holiday trip to Tanzania. This picture is from the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater, a huge mecca for animals. Probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

Hey Everyone,

Well, things in Port Elizabeth are certainly better than they were last time I wrote. The four of us are very relieved to have the month of January behind us, and we are looking forward to the rest of 2010. The end of January consisted of us being herded from motel, to holiday flat, to our Boss, Mpumi’s house, before we finally found and confirmed the lease on our new home. After numerous negotiations and complications with our Cape Town office, we were able to solidify our new place, and even though it was a nightmare of an experience, it all worked out well in the end. Our new house was probably the best of all the homes we were looking at: four bedrooms, incredibly safe(alarm system both up and downstairs, a beeping system for every time that you open a door or a window, and keys and bars for every window and door). It is a FORTRESS! Literally. And, we live 2 doors down from our boss, which is pretty hilarious as well. Our home is spacious and comfortable, we have a pool and tennis court in the complex, and we are within walking distance to the gym as well as the beach, so we are all getting back into our active lifestyles. January put a damper on everything: our routine, enthusiasm, fitness and energy level, so it’s nice to get back into a healthy and happy routine. Plus, summer is finally upon us in Port Elizabeth, so we are psyched to be out in the gorgeous sunshine every day!

While January was stressful, and something to put behind us, we certainly learned a lot of things along the bumpy journey, and we as interns are optimistic about getting to help create a new Grassroot Soccer protocol for emergencies. Heaven forbid a situation like this ever occurs again, but if something were to happen, it would be incredibly effective to have a plan, and money set aside. We were working with minimal amounts of money during the month of January for our housing(which resulted in us living with our boss for ten days), so simple logistics and financial issues like that could be avoided in the future.

The other day, Rosie and I were talking about what we have learned throughout the six months that we have been living in South Africa, and while I have learned so many things, one thing that we both agreed upon is that we have learned to appreciate America. Sure, one of our most famous athletes is involved in a giant sex scandal and our former President has a less than perfect track record, and our obesity rates are through the roof, but the US has so many incredible opportunities and freedoms, many of which are a given for every citizen, that I have to step back sometimes and thank my lucky stars that I was born in America, as corny as that sounds.

To give you an example, we had our friend, Meg, a South African over the other night to see our new place. As she was walking around looking at the windows in our living room(all of which have bars on them), she commented that she was looking at pictures from her cousins home in Australia, and she noticed that there weren’t any bars on the windows. “The windows looked so naked and bare, I had never seen anything like it!” While in the States, many people certainly have gates and alarm systems, it is a rareity to find bars on the windows, especially on the second floor. Here, in South Africa, that is a reality. Along with that, you NEVER leave your windows open at night. There are so many ways of life here that are so common to South Africans, but become such a burden and frustration to foreigners. And, while now we are beginning to adjust and accept these habits into our daily routine, we are by no means perfect. There are times where we forget to hide our possesions, leave a window open, or forget to close curtains. All these little details are things that I would certainly stress to any visitors to South Africa before they visit. Obviously, visiting any country you have to take certain precautions, but many of them are just more extreme here.

The other night, Dom and Mike met some Americans who have only been in Port Elizabeth for a week, and already three girls within the group of twenty have been mugged. The reason being that they walked alone at night. Huge Red Flag, and as soon as Rosie and I heard this story, our reaction was, “You never do that here”. But, I can remember back to our intern training in Cape Town when we first arrived here, and most nights were spent dancing and enjoying ourselves on Long Street and downtown, where none of us were hyperactively aware of the fact that we needed to walk in large groups and be mindful of our wallets. While there were a few close calls, as a group we were incredibly lucky that nothing bad happened. All these lessons, along with so many more, are just daily reminders that life is different in South Africa, and this is a constant learning experience. The best solution is to try and keep as open of a mind as possible, and to accept that things here will never be as they are in the States, so there is simply no point in comparing the two. I must say, in the month of January I have never longed for home so much, which is ironic because January is usually the month in New England when everyone wants out!

When we talk about life lessons, many of those come from our life outside of work, but we have also learned an incredible amount as interns for Grassroot Soccer. Every day at work tries your patience and work ethic in one sense or another: whether it is dealing with the inconsistent internet, persistently calling someone for a price quote on something, conversing with teachers and principals who are hard to track down or negotiating schedules with our peer educators, there are constantly moments of humor and frustration. As we are slowly becoming GRS ‘veterans’, we are learning more and more tricks of the trade, and how to navigate these systems. While in a sense I feel like many of these systems have made us lazier, I think that in reality it is just learning, and accepting that things are done differentely, here than in the States. While work has its moments of frustration, 2010 has only been exciting and positive, and there is so much to look forward to in the upcoming months. Work was actually the driving force for all of us during our low points in January. The amazing people that we work with were helping us to maintain our sanity and sense of humor, and they were the only constant that we were able to find in our disorganized lives.

But, I’ll get into more specifics of work in the next post, so look out for that! I hope you all are doing well, thanks for taking the time to read my blog. As always, please reach out to me at any point( with questions or an update on things in your life, I always love hearing from people!

ps. I am including a few pictures from my holiday trip to Tanzania, enjoy!

This is a picture of us with our guide and cook from our safari in Tanzania. From left: Gamba, me, Rosie, Anna and Tuma.