In Grassroot Soccer’s SKILLZ+ program in Zambia, HIV+ Coaches deliver support to HIV+ youth around issues such as stigma, disclosure and treatment adherence. Working out of clinics around Lusaka, SKILLZ+ offers a safe and inclusive environment for HIV+ youth to openly discuss social concerns and support each other in adhering to HIV treatment. Central to the program’s success are the SKILLZ+ Coaches, role models who identify with the issues participants face, while providing encouragement and advice. Coach John is one of twenty SKILLZ+ coaches in Lusaka, and he shared with us his experiences as an HIV+ youth and the impact of GRS programming.
“Being a kid with HIV can be very difficult,” John said. “Because of the stigma, you feel you can’t talk to anyone about your fears or problems, even adults. I used to try to deal with everything by myself.” One of the major goals of SKILLZ+ is to create safe spaces and support networks for youth to talk about issues related to their HIV status. “It’s much easier to talk with other youth that are going through the same thing,” John explains, “You’re not worried about what other people will think.” Social stigma has been cited as one of the main difficulties in treatment adherence of HIV+ patients, as being seen visiting a treatment clinic can affect one’s reputation in the community and lead to negative assumptions1. According to John, this is where SKILLZ+ makes a real impact: “It starts with the ‘Coach’s Story’ in the first practice. Having someone you look up to admit to their status and tell their story without any shame gives you confidence and encouragement”.
John also testified to the profound impact SKILLZ+ has on coaches. “It has really empowered me. For the first time, I am comfortable being myself and I have become a role model to my participants and my family, even those older than me. I am proud to be there for my younger brother. He hopes to be a GRS Coach some day!”
GRS is excited about future SKILLZ+ plans as a part of the ‘Bridging the Gap’ model; one that combines prevention education, testing and HIV+ support to ensure that all youth have a place on the GRS team. The message is simple, explains John: “Whatever your status, you have an important life to lead. Keep your head up, stay motivated and make healthy choices.”
1. Sanjobo, et al. 2008. Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS Research Alliance.