Coach Cecilia (pictured right) with Gertrude, GRS SKILLZ participant

Gertrude is a Form 4 student living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In March 2020, when the Government of Zimbabwe announced a nationwide lockdown and closed schools to curb the spread of COVID-19, daily life for adolescents like Gertrude came to a standstill. Suddenly, young people were left stranded at home — and without access to the vital sexual and reproductive health information and services they need at such a critical stage of life. 

At the very same time, staff at Grassroot Soccer (GRS) Zimbabwe were quickly strategizing about how they could engage young people like Gertrude with their life-changing programs in such a dramatically changed context. GRS Zimbabwe, a key local USAID DREAMS-implementing partner since 2016, has empowered nearly 45,000 Zimbabwean girls and helped link them to health and social services through its SKILLZ Curricula, in which young adult mentors (Coaches) deliver play- and evidence-based health programs to youth. 

With changing restrictions around in-person gatherings, GRS pivoted to develop a new way of bringing its programming to adolescents like Gertrude. This innovation led to the development of SKILLZ Magazines — a fun, interactive, and remote resource that uses soccer metaphors to communicate comprehensive health information on topics like sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), HIV and testing, mental health, and COVID-19. Like GRS’s in-person SKILLZ Curricula, the SKILLZ Magazines are built around three A’s: building young people’s health and life skills Assets; improving their demand for and Access to youth-friendly SRHR services; and promoting Adherence to treatment and pro-social norms.

When Cecilia, a SKILLZ Coach with GRS Zimbabwe, visited Gertrude at her home last year, she brought a SKILLZ Magazine with her. Over the course of the next several weeks, Cecilia and Gertrude met one-on-one four times, reviewing lessons together and going over activities from the SKILLZ Magazine that Gertrude had completed in between sessions. During the pandemic, having supportive visits from someone like Cecilia was crucial for Gertrude, who explained that “Coach is someone you can trust…to explain things you don’t understand.”

Gertrude is one of nearly 20,000 young people in Zimbabwe who engaged with a SKILLZ Magazine in 2020 — an increase from the 16,394 youth whom GRS reached through its standard in-person SKILLZ curricula the year before. Nearly every single young person who received a SKILLZ Magazine — 99.5% — graduated from the SKILLZ program. And from what GRS has learned, the SKILLZ Magazines are making a difference. Survey data from 2019 and 2020 found that increases in adolescents’ knowledge around SRHR, gender norms, and life skills doubled during SKILLZ Magazine programming vs. standalone in-person programming covering the same subjects. 

And not only did SKILLZ Magazines help adolescents like Gertrude increase their knowledge around crucial health topics, they also actively engaged parents and guardians in their children’s health education. Coaches encourage parents to support their children as they work through the SKILLZ Magazines, which creates a platform for meaningful discussions within families around sensitive topics related to sexual and reproductive health.

“Before the [SKILLZ] Magazine, I didn’t have a bond with my mom because she didn’t know how to deal with teenagers,” Gertrude reflected. “We helped each other and she ended up realizing the importance of listening to children’s opinions and what they think.

The [SKILLZ] Magazine made Gertrude be open,” her mother shared. “If she has a problem, she comes to me, be it issues to do with boys or anything else. So even if there is something bad that might happen to her tomorrow, she will come and tell me.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, GRS Zimbabwe knew that they needed to innovate — and quickly — to ensure that young people facing critical health challenges wouldn’t get left behind. In developing the new SKILLZ Magazines, GRS Zimbabwe made its life-saving health curricula more accessible than ever.

For Gertrude, having a SKILLZ Magazine to read and a Coach to talk to was transformative during an especially challenging time.

“This [SKILLZ] Magazine is different because you get the chance to expose yourself [to new information] and express your feelings,” Gertrude said. “I learned about how I should conduct myself as a girl; that I should know my value and dreams.”