Submitted by USAID/Zimbabwe

Children First. Caption: An orphan herself, Fortune helps other children learn about HIV through the Grassroot Soccer program. Photographer: Heather Quinn

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 having no 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 Grassroot Soccer.

Grassroot Soccer is an innovative organization that uses the power of soccer 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, the program engages students in critical learning about HIV prevention. The program also provides psychosocial support and the opportunity for kids to form trusting relationships with responsible adults. The role model component is especially important because many of the kids in the program don’t have positive role models at home.

When Fortune heard about Grassroot, she was too old to be a participant, but offered to be a volunteer facilitator. She stood out as a committed and passionate volunteer and 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. She now says, “If I had participated in the Grassroot 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.”

The Grassroot program consists of 14 sport modules that use soccer and games to help students understand important information about HIV and health issues. By infusing soccer metaphors into key messages, this program’s unique approach has achieved remarkable results. A 2007 evaluation 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 Grassroot Soccer to improve its programming and financial management capabilities. Because of this, Grassroot Soccer was able to expand its program to reach 3,000 children in Bulawayo schools this year and train Fortune in the skills necessary to deliver the program. Due to the success of the USAID/Zimbabwe funding, Grassroot Soccer is now a New Partners Initiative (NPI) partner with a three year agreement for their work in South Africa and is working towards a public private partnership in Kenya and South Africa

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 Grassroot 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.