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Nonprofits|Social Impact

Feature Impact Story: Grassroot Soccer

By Team Spiral|September 10, 2021
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We’re excited to feature the incredibly impactful work of our nonprofit partner, Grassroot Soccer! Grassroot Soccer 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. They’ve reached more than 13 million youth since 2002. Discover more about their mission, stories of impact, and total impact to date in this piece.

Spiral: What need are you addressing, and how are you doing it?

Grassroot Soccer: The last decade has seen profound gains in global public health. But while mortality for children and adults has declined, adolescents ages 10-19 continue to be left behind. Young people face the most acute combination of preventable diseases and disorders of any age group, which is during a critical developmental transition to adulthood.

In Africa, even before the onset of COVID-19, adolescents were already facing the highest burden of health challenges. Africa is the only place globally where adolescent mortality has increased over the past three decades. HIV/AIDS continues to be a leading cause of death among adolescents in the region and is a particularly acute challenge for girls — despite accounting for just 10% of the population, girls make up 80% of all new HIV infections. On top of this, over 30% of girls have experienced sexual and gender-based violence (actual numbers are likely much higher due to lack of reporting), and almost half of adolescent girls in Africa have been pregnant before their 18th birthday.

This is where Grassroot Soccer comes in. Grassroot Soccer programs leverage the universal appeal of soccer to reach adolescents and engage them around the most important, difficult, and often taboo health topics during a critical time in their lives. Using soccer as the hook, we engage youth to overcome their greatest health challenges through our “Three C’s” model: an activity-based Curriculum, SKILLZ, that provides accurate, actionable, and life-saving health information; Coaches who care about and connect with adolescents to inspire them to take action; and a fun, safe, and positive Culture creating an optimal environment for learning.

Spiral: What’s a story of a life you’ve transformed through your work?

Grassroot Soccer: Mapalo is a 19-year-old living with HIV in Zambia who lost his parents at an early age and has been living with his aunt ever since. Mapalo was taking regular medication, called antiretroviral therapy or ART, to manage his HIV. However, like many youth living with HIV, Mapalo knew little about what his HIV status meant and why he was taking medication. For many youth, this lack of understanding can lead them to not adhere to their recommended treatment r. This lowered adherence in turn can increase the risk of HIV-related health issues, as well as the risk of HIV transmission.

One critical challenge is misconceptions about “mental health”: what it is, and why it’s important for people living with HIV.

“At first I thought mental health was about going crazy and for people who are not normal,” Mapalo said. But “mental health issues affect a lot of people like me because we are constantly fighting with the thought of [HIV] disclosure — when is the right time? How best to do it? And how will the other person react?”

This all changed for Mapalo when he enrolled in a Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ Plus program — our sport-based intervention for youth living with HIV — at a local health facility. With the support of a Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ Plus Coach (who is a near-peer mentor openly living with HIV themselves) and a group of peer participants also living with HIV, the program equipped Mapalo with crucial life skills and healthy behaviors that promoted his mental-well being and sustained his high level of adherence to his treatment. Now, with a feeling of acceptance and belonging as part of a community, Mapalo feels confident he can continue his treatment journey. 

“I have made friends and a Coach who are just like me and have shown me that I can live with the virus,” Mapalo said of his experience in the program. “With the help of my group, I came up with solutions to better cope with my condition.”

Spiral: What’s the total impact your nonprofit made last year in numbers?

Grassroot Soccer: Since 2002, Grassroot Soccer has reached more than 13 million youth ages 9-24 globally with its sport-based SKILLZ programs. In the past year, in response tof program disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we innovated and adapted. By doing so, we improved the lives of millions through life-saving health information, services, and support, all in the face of lockdowns and school closures.

In 2020, our flagship SKILLZ programs, which engage youth in evidence- and sport-based sexual and reproductive health and rights programs and activities, reached nearly 150,000 youth across sub-Saharan Africa. 

We worked to get SKILLZ information to adolescents who need it in a number of ways. In Zimbabwe and Nigeria, for example, we distributed more than 24,000 SKILLZ Magazines — fun, interactive, and remote resources that use soccer metaphors to communicate comprehensive information on topics like sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV and testing, and mental health — to more than 120,600 adolescents, families, and caregivers. We also delivered SKILLZ messaging through radio and TV, which reached an estimated 23 million people in Nigeria and Mozambique.

Our work improves health outcomes for adolescents. We achieve this through our “Three A’s” impact model: building assets (health knowledge and the confidence to use it), improving access to high-quality health services, and increasing adherence to crucial treatments and healthy behaviors.

Here are a few examples of our tangible impact on young people’s assets, access, and adherence in the past year. In 2020, in Zambia, one Grassroot Soccer program improved boys’ knowledge of positive gender norms by 43%. In Zimbabwe, our SKILLZ Magazines increased adolescents’ knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender norms, and life skills by 21%. 

These changes in attitudes lead to important changes in behavior. For example, girls in our Zimbabwe program increased their contraceptive use by 250% in 2020, and an estimated 72% of participants in our SKILLZ Plus programming in 2020 showed good ART adherence.

Spiral: What’s an innovation in the way you serve that has enabled you to increase your impact?

Grassroot Soccer: For young people in the communities where Grassroot Soccer works, the pandemic has exacerbated existing health challenges — reducing access to critical services, interrupting HIV testing and treatment, and generating an increase in gender-based violence and mental health struggles.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Grassroot Soccer has been innovating to provide essential COVID-19 information and sustained support for young people. One way we are doing this is by using technology to engage young people while in-person programs are disrupted during lockdowns and school closures. 

In Zambia, we launched a cell phone-based version of our SKILLZ curricula. We’ve also gamified key components of our curriculum into a fun and interactive virtual format; a cell phone-based game we developed, which is available for free (or a low cost) across Mozambique and Nigeria, allows young people to engage with critical information on topics such as relationships and changing bodies.

These digital innovations represent exciting new territory for us, and this work will continue beyond the pandemic; they provide the opportunity to reach tens of millions of adolescents — and to stay connected to them for years to come.

Spiral: If a donor were to support you today, what could you do with that gift?

Grassroot Soccer: 

Here are some examples of the ways in which your support of Grassroot Soccer will have an impact on young people in the communities we serve across sub-Saharan Africa:

  • $250 can support the training and certification of a Grassroot Soccer Coach as a Youth Reproductive Health Assistant who delivers services directly to youth, including comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and counseling on contraceptive options.
  • $100 can supply a classroom of Grassroot Soccer participants with engaging and educational soccer-themed SKILLZ Magazines.
  • $50 can supply a Grassroot Soccer Coach with personal protective equipment so they can deliver crucial medications and services directly to adolescents while access to clinics remains disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • $25 can support a team of five adolescents in Zambia to participate in the virtual SKILLZ program and gain critical health knowledge while remaining connected to peers in a time of social isolation.

Overall, a gift to Grassroot Soccer enables us to build partnerships, train Coaches, and execute our uniquely fun and evidence-based programs that equip young people with the life-saving information, services, and mentorship they need to live healthier lives. Donations also support our ability to continually innovate — like we have done in response to COVID-19 and in integrating mental health into our programs — ensuring we are adapting to a changing world and having the greatest impact possible.

Team Spiral
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