Soccer is an integral part of local cultures across the world. It is something so positive that it brings smiles to children’s faces even in the worst of circumstances. In most places simply arriving at a field with a soccer ball will win you instant friendships and immediate access into a local community. Soccer teams and leagues are ubiquitous structures in even the most impoverished areas. And professional soccer players are heroes to the kids who watch them play- imagine Michael Jordan, if basketball was all anybody watched!
By working within this existing structure and by training role models – pro players, coaches and youth players themselves – to get the message out about healthy behavior and the risks of HIV, we have shown that we can break stigmas, dramatically increase awareness, change behaviors, and turn the tide against HIV.
GRS realized that the true power of soccer has always been connections that it creates between people. Using footballers as role models, and using the popularity of soccer to engage hard to reach young people, GRS has combined social theory, public health methodologies, rigorous evaluation and a huge dose of passion.
Our curriculum is based on the Social Learning Theory. The program combines three powerful principles of education:
- Kids learn best from people they respect. Role models have a unique power to influence young minds. Young people listen to and emulate their heroes. Grassroot Soccer uses professional players and other role models as HIV educators and spokespeople.
- Learning is not a spectator sport. Adolescents retain knowledge best when they are active participants in the learning process, teaching others what they themselves have learned. Grassroot Soccer graduates are trained to become peer educators and advocates in their communities.
- It takes a village. Role models can change what young people think about, but lifelong learning requires lifelong community support. Grassroot Soccer fosters community involvement through youth outreach, long-term partnerships and special events like graduation ceremonies for graduates.
Initially developed in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Zimbabwean Ministry of Education, medical professional, and educational and public health experts, the GRS curriculum uses activities and games to provide youth with comprehensive HIV prevention and life skills education. As GRS has grown, several well-respected HIV prevention experts have served in an advisory capacity including Albert Bandura, Martha Brady, Douglas Kirby, Thomas Coates, and Helen Epstein. Over time, GRS has adapted our curricula to address important adolescent health issues such as sexual and reproductive health, gender inequalities and norms, malaria, and social support.
The GRS curriculum fits WHO criteria on which school-based interventions should be brought to scale (see WHO Technical Series 938: Preventing HIV/AIDS in Young People), has been approved by a large network of stakeholders, and has been implemented on a wide scale through projects funded by (among others) USAID, AED, UNHCR, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K Kellogg Foundation, CARE International, and the Abbott Fund in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Namibia (among other countries). Implementing Partners of all sizes (including FHI, JHUCCP, IOM, and Mercy Corps) use GRS methodologies in their own programs across Africa.