“Soccer has had a huge positive impact on me and it feels amazing to be able to participate in a sport that teaches me self-discipline, time management, as well as soccer skills I will use in my future when I pursue my soccer career. Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ For Life has taught me discipline and cleanliness, to being able to identify situations in life that might lead to harm’s way and what to do when I’m being bullied.” – Phemelo Ncanywa, South Africa

In honor of the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games taking place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates from March 14 – March 21, here’s how Grassroot Soccer and Special Olympics partner together to bring SKILLZ For Life and reflections from the incredible Special Olympics athletes.

Grassroot Soccer (GRS) has partnered with Special Olympics since 2009, when we first worked with Special Olympics Namibia. We started partnering with Special Olympics Nigeria in 2013 and Special Olympics South Africa in 2015. The relationship that Grassroot Soccer has with Special Olympics spans far beyond just the curriculum: it is an integrated 3A’s approach. GRS has collaborated on a dynamic, one-of-a-kind program that supports Special Olympics to deeply understand how service providers can support people with intellectual disability (PWID) and how families/communities can gain access to PWID-friendly youth services in their countries and continue to access those services over time.

“I love volleyball and make an effort to train every day. Sport has built my confidence in and out of the pitch. SKILLZ For Life made me aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to prevent myself from having malaria.” – Kabiru Adewale Iwalesi, Nigeria

In Nigeria, SKILLZ For Life, which is generously funded by ExxonMobil, is a series of soccer-based informational practices aimed at empowering people with intellectual disability with HIV and malaria prevention knowledge. SKILLZ For Life Athletes are females and males aged 8-30. People with intellectual disability are especially vulnerable to HIV infection and malaria because they are at a higher risk of sexual abuse and are often excluded from health education programs. The SKILLZ For Life program is the first known HIV and malaria education program that uses sport to directly target people with intellectual disability in Nigeria. SKILLZ is a culture, mind-set, and toolkit for Special Olympics peer educators to use when teaching young people about HIV/AIDS, malaria, and life skills. SKILLZ creates simple and powerful connections between soccer and life. The SKILLZ approach helps young people have relevant and important discussions about life, take steps toward achieving their goals, stay strong when faced with challenges, and protect themselves and others from HIV/AIDS and malaria.

SKILLZ For Life consists of 6, 60-minute sessions and a graduation. To graduate, a participant must attend at least 4 out of 6 sessions. After completing a 5-day GRS training workshop and Special Olympics training on working with people with intellectual disabilities, SKILLZ For Life Coaches work in pairs to deliver SKILLZ For Life sessions with approximately 15 Special Olympics Athletes and Partners.

“I love playing soccer because it helps me focus and I love the adrenaline rush every time I run after the ball. My memorable or favorite moment was when Special Olympics brought Grassroot Soccer to my hometown of Kimberly. It was an amazing learning experience for us athletes from special schools, as it was very informative training where we got to use soccer skills to educate ourselves about the dangers of life and how it’s risky as an individual to take shortcuts in the choices I make in life.” – Ashley Peterson, South Africa

Oftentimes, the service providers that Special Olympics links its athletes and their families with through the SKILLZ For Life program are the only service providers in the country who are PWID-friendly. Both of the SKILLZ For Life curricula in South Africa and Nigeria have undergone formal external evaluations with positive results for achievement of the 3A’s and uptake of health services. GRS spent years revising, piloting, and assessing the SKILLZ For Life curricula and visual resource alongside researchers and academics who were experts on PWID and youth with intellectual disabilities in order to create a unique program that uses quite a different curriculum and implementation structure from Grassroot Soccer’s standard SKILLZ curricula for other partners, communities, and geographies.

Congratulations and good luck to all the incredible athletes competing in the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games!

“Whenever I play soccer, I get joy and inspiration. SKILLZ For Life gave me the opportunity to take a leadership role. If other athletes wish to compete in the World Games one day, they shouldn’t feel left out, and they should dedicate their time to training and believe that one day they will participate in the games.” – Victor Chisom Umeh, Nigeria

“My sport, badminton, makes me happy. Sport makes me feel more alive, comfortable, and healthy. My favorite moment as an athlete was when I won a medal and was nominated to represent Special Olympics Nigeria at the World Games.” – Emeka Michael Ukonu, Nigeria

“Sport has made a difference in my life because it always makes me happy and physically fit. SKILLZ For Life impacted me as a young athlete and leader because it makes me want to have fun and I learned how to protect myself from malaria.” – Ayokunle Akinjayeju, Nigeria

“Being selected to be a part of the 2019 Special Olympics South Africa National Team made me realize that I am more than just my disability. Grassroot Soccer has helped teach me discipline, self-respect, self-worth, and to eat healthy. I cannot wait to travel to Abu Dhabi for the Games, so that I can make new friends, as well as share any strategies with athletes from all over the globe.” – Khumo Zakia, South Africa

“I’m competing in volleyball. I already know how to play soccer very well, so I decided to learn some new skills in volleyball to gain new experiences. I prepare for competitions by making sure I attend trainings all the time and still carry out my private training. My advice for other athletes who want to compete at the World Games is to keep training and working hard, never underestimate yourselves, and always believe in your abilities.” – James Gabriel Uyeh, Nigeria