In November 2023, 2x World Cup Winners and Grassroot Soccer (GRS) Global Ambassadors Christen Press and Tobin Heath traveled to Lusaka, Zambia to spend time with GRS Coaches and participants and see firsthand how GRS uses soccer, fun, and mentorship to connect young people with life-saving health information and services.
In their time in Lusaka, Christen (also a GRS Global Board Member) and Tobin spent time learning from Coaches and participating in GRS SKILLZ activities. From Lusaka, the two flew to London for the Ninth Annual GRS World AIDS Day Gala, where they spoke about their experience along with former GRS Coach Kunda Mwitwa, in a conversation facilitated by Gala host June Sarpong OBE.
One of the programs Christen and Tobin witnessed was SKILLZ Plus: a fun, interactive, and youth-friendly intervention that uses soccer and play-based learning to address the specific needs of youth living with HIV, including their mental health. Like the participants, SKILLZ Plus Coaches themselves are living with HIV, meaning that they can relate to the unique challenges participants are facing and serve as critical role models for them.
“We walked into a room with 25 participants who were HIV-positive, and you would think that perhaps that would be a sad space to enter,” Christen told the Gala audience. “But we were met with joy and celebration, smiles, laughter, an energizer, some KILOs. And instantly the perspective that we had transformed, because Grassroot Soccer creates a space where people are able to be optimistic and hopeful in the face of great challenge.”
While in Lusaka, Christen and Tobin also observed GRS’s Community-Based Distribution program: an innovative peer-to-peer approach to adolescent health in which Coaches provide young people with access to family planning services in a safe space free from judgment or stigma.
“The Ministry of Health trained us as community-based workers because of the challenges that young adolescents were facing,” said Taonga Phiri, a GRS Coach and Community-Based Distributor (CBD). “They were being discriminated [against] and looked down on because they are too young to go to facilities and access family planning services.”
“We want to create a safe space for everyone,” added David Mpundu, also a Coach and CBD.
“It’s reimagining health care,” Tobin told the Gala audience in London when discussing the CBD model. “Before, adolescents had to go to medical facilities, and there was a lot of stigma to it because it’s adolescent health and sexual health that we’re talking about here. The program is really powerful.”
Before leaving Lusaka, Christen and Tobin sat down with a group of Coaches to express their gratitude for the work they are doing with young people.
“You are a bright light,” Tobin told the Coaches. “Thank you so much for dedicating your time and your energy to supporting what is going to be the next generation of changemakers and leaders in your communities, and in the world.”