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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Kicking AIDS to the sidelines

Brandeis volunteer uses the power of soccer to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS

Published: September 12, 2008
Section: Features

In a little high school in Massachusetts, Brooke Rosenbauer ’09 was showing a small group of students and their teacher a video depicting the impact of HIV/AIDS on the world.

What had started out as a crowd of 15 high school students quickly turned into a room filled with more than 40 perspiring athletes and their coach, all equally as awestruck by the powerful video as Rosenbauer had been the first time she had heard about Grassroot Soccer.

When she received an email about an organization called Grassroot Soccer (GRS), Rosenbauer had been playing Brandeis soccer for two years. Intrigued, she decided to attend a GRS presentation at Brandeis, one she almost missed because of an athletic banquet. Getting soaked from running in the rain to rush there was a small price to pay for Rosenbauer, who instantly knew that this organization was made for her. The rest is history.

In 2002, former professional soccer player Tommy Clark founded GRS. Having lived in and played soccer in Zimbabwe, Clark had seen the heartbreak AIDS had caused teammates and loved ones. He also recognized the power that soccer had to influence young minds, especially in making important life decisions. Ethan Zohn, winner of Survivor Africa, former soccer player in Zimbabwe, and co-founder of GRS, offered initial monetary support for the organization and has worked ever since to spread word in the media about GRS.

With their main focus in the countries of South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, along with several other partners throughout Africa, GRS connects professional soccer players and other community role models with African youth to increase education about HIV/AIDS. Playing on the idea that HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable, GRS features an activities-based curriculum to enlist soccer players, as well as other community role models such as coaches and teachers, in educating their own communities and those beyond about this reality and various prevention strategies.

In addition to teaching youth the basic facts about HIV, GRS also provides them with the life skills necessary to help make the right health choices and ultimately to remain HIV-free.

As role models and as part of the soccer phenomenon prevalent in Africa, soccer players have the chance to use their fame to do good through the GRS program. Rosenbauer explained, “These players who go into the schools and work with the kids are just like superheroes. It’s like having Michael Jordan and all these other great players just come into your school, and I think that’s a really powerful message, especially for me as a soccer player being able to understand why that would be so effective.”

Speaking about the power of soccer, Zohn agreed: “The beauty about it is you can go anywhere in the world with a soccer ball and you put it on that ground and you instantly have 25 friends. Soccer breaks down cultural stereotypes, it brings people together and it forces a community to come together over a common cause.”

GRS’ mission extends through the United States as well. Last week, Zohn kicked off Dribble 2008, his 550 mile dribble spanning from Boston to Washington D.C. Zohn will alternate between dribbling and giving presentations in local schools to educate youth on the mission of GRS and will complete his journey in Washington D.C. on December 1, World AIDS Day. This event introduced the newly named Grassroot Soccer United (GRSU), a youth movement to end HIV in Africa. GRSU includes the Lose the Shoes (LTS) program, of which Rosenbauer is director.

Originally, Lose the Shoes was otherwise known as KickAIDS. As a KickAIDS Ambassador, Rosenbauer’s gave presentations about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and GRS itself to high school students.

Though certain instances like that with the perspiring athletes were a bit intimidating, Rosenbauer recalled how they taught her an important lesson. “What could have been a public speaking horror story turned into a testament to the truly universal nature, of Grassroot Soccer. It didn’t matter that they were football players–as athletes, they still felt a connection to the cause,” she explained.

Named after its signature bare-foot 3V3 soccer tournaments held at high schools and colleges around the country and the globe, LTS seeks to raise both money and awareness of HIV/AIDS among today’s youth.

Through Lose the Shoes events across the country, over 50 schools have raised nearly $100,000 in support of GRS since 2007. In January of 2007, Brandeis became one of the first schools to host an LTS tournament.

Rosenbauer said the chance to bring together various groups on campus for one common cause is a testament to the power of GRS. “The beauty of Grassroot Soccer is that it connects people from all corners of the globe for a common cause. My favorite part of the Brandeis tournaments is the mixing that occurs between the activist community and athletes. Those two crowds don’t seem to cross paths very often, which is sad because we really are more powerful as a unified force,” she said.

September 27 from 4 to 8 p.m. on Chapels Field, Brandeis will hold its fourth LTS event which will be played barefoot for the first time.

For Rosenbauer, the role as director “was just perfect for me, you know, it sort of encompassed all of my passions and interests and I stuck with it and so here I am,” she said.

As director, Rosenbauer’s responsibilities are endless and include directing interns, maintaining the Grassroot Soccer website, and researching potential sponsors and chances for student outreach.

In addition, she also works alongside other organizations and maintains GRS’ database of contacts. Rosenbauer has forged connections all across the globe, as she helps teachers, coaches, student coordinators, and organizations worldwide with any general questions they might have and also in the planning of LTS events. Rosenbauer does this all as a GRS volunteer.

Of her volunteer work, Zohn said, “People like Brooke are just an inspiration. You know they’re a shining light in what we’re doing because it’s completely volunteer what Brooke is doing…she’s working almost a full time job as a volunteer for Grassroot Soccer and that’s awesome.”

With all of the work Rosenbauer has done with Grassroot Soccer, it is no wonder that she was recently named a Truman Scholar. This national scholarship, like its namesake, President Truman, exhibits a dedication to and understanding of the importance of education in molding the leaders of tomorrow. The academic year of 1977-78 featured the first issuance of a Truman Scholarship and the program has since expanded to offer scholars not only monetary support, but also support with internships and career counseling.

Awarded to college juniors, the Truman Scholarship grants $30,000 to assist students seeking to pursue graduate programs in public service. In return for receiving this money, Truman Scholars must work in public service for three of the seven years after they finish their graduate studies.

Of the breadth of possible GRS events, Rosenbauer says, the sky’s the limit. It does not matter whether an event has been done before or not, because some of the most successful ideas are also the craziest.

And from GRS, Rosenbauer has learned that anyone can make a difference and that using what you know truly will take you far.

“I think especially as idealistic college students we often become discouraged or overwhelmed by all the problems in the world. It’s easy to think, “but what can I do?” My only advice is that it’s ok to have crazy ideas. Most importantly, find something that you’re passionate about,” she said.

“It is overwhelming to find something [that lets you feel] like you’re making a difference, but I mean, doing something is better than nothing.”