Strengthening Community with Soccer

The pandemic of HIV/AIDS knows no borders. This incurable yet easily preventable disease is claiming lives and fracturing families around the world. In the United States alone it is the fifth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 25-44. Africa is the region of the world that has suffered the most from the pandemic. Botswana has the world’s highest infection rate with an estimated 33-37.5 percent of its population being infected, and South Africa has the most HIV cases in the world with roughly 5.3 million of its people infected with the disease.

With a rate of infection at 5.6 percent, Haiti has the highest infection rate outside of Africa, and the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) is home to 80 percent of the reported HIV/AIDS cases in the Caribbean. Given the magnitude of this problem, it is not surprising that many feel powerless to make any positive change. But slowing the spread of the disease will not be found solely through the mass distribution of anti-retroviral medications; it can only be found through something much more simple: education.

The Premise

Grassroots Soccer is an NGO that seeks to do just this. It is an international health organization that seeks to educate youth on the realities of HIV/AIDS using professional soccer players and other role models as teachers. Grassroots Soccer currently has programs in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Ethiopia where American soccer players and many African professional soccer players work with children from the ages of 10-14. This age is targeted because it is a time when children are old enough to have an understanding about sex yet young enough not to have engaged in sexual activity.

In Africa, professional soccer players are the idolized heroes for most children and carry great influence. Grassroots Soccer educators use soccer, other games, and role-playing activities to provide children with a fun and active way to develop healthy decision-making skills. Why soccer? Soccer is already a rallying point for many communities suffering from poverty and high rates of infection. Integrating soccer into an educational program provides a common ground for children and educators; it also makes the education fun.

The Beginning

In 2002 Jeff DeCelles, UVM class of 2003, went looking for a soccer game while studying at a small Catholic college in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Given baseball’s stronghold on the athletic scene, the task was much harder than he initially expected. His search for a game brought him far outside of the city into the rice fields of rural Dominican Republic to a small Haitian village called Batey Libertad. In Batey Libertad he not only found a community with a passion for soccer he found a community that was impoverished and segregated from Dominican society.

Batey Libertad is one of roughly 2,000 bateys in the Dominican countryside. Bateys are small communities of Haitians who have come to the Dominican Republic for work in the fields. Residents of bateys suffer some of the worst human rights violations in the Western hemisphere. They are in many ways people without a home; Haiti denies citizenship to Haitian children born in the bateys as does the Dominican government.

Batey Libertad is a small community of 500 to 1000 men, women, and children. It is removed from Dominican society, located in the middle of a rice field where most of the men work. The first language for most is Creole; those who received education in Haiti also speak French and the men speak Spanish, the language they use in the fields.

DeCelles knew that the community was in desperate need of outside assistance, due to an extreme lack of support from the Dominican government. The poverty of Batey Libertad is detrimental to all areas of life; food and clean drinking water is scarce, basic medical supplies and knowledge are not available allowing treatable and preventable illness to fester. There is also a high rate of illiteracy because teachers come to the village to teach children once or twice a week and only for a half day. To top it off the rate of HIV/AIDS infection is among the highest outside of Africa at an estimated 5 percent.

Initially, DeCelles was only able to help on the most basic level through soccer. He became a coach and through that, an educator as well. He contacted the NGO Sports for Life who donated jerseys and cleats, without which, the Batey Liberated teams would not be allowed to play against Dominican teams. DeCelles joined force with Grassroots Soccer to create the organization’s first project outside of Africa.

DeCelles came back the University of Vermont but did not forget those he befriended and helped in Batey Libertad. He teamed up with two other students, Oriana Campanelli and John Antonucci, both from the class of 2004, to create the Batey Libertad Coalition. Over they past few years they have made many trips to Batey Libertad providing aid and fund raising for support efforts. Since graduation. Both DeCelles and Campanelli have taken jobs for Grassroots Soccer- DeCelles is the Southern Africa/Caribbean Director and Campanelli is a teaching fellow.

The Application

With the graduation of the three founders, their cause at the University of Vermont has not been lost. Jon and Pat Erickson, professors of Ecological Economics and Animal Sciences respectively, have been instrumental in the continued support of Batey Libertad through Grassroots Soccer and the Batey Libertad Coalition. The two lead a community development and applied economics travel-study class to Batey Libertad in early January with 12 students and the three founders of the BLC. The objective of the work-study class was not only to reduce the spread of HIV through education but to proved greater humanitarian aid to the community.

While the students worked hands on with the children of the village acting as the “role-model soccer players,” Jon and Pat Erickson worked on establishing a medical clinic in the batey. Jon Erickson told the story of the daughter of a Voodoo priest, a young girl named Negrita who suffered from chronic ear infections and was going deaf because of it. Negrita’s painful and life changing condition was one that was easily treatable; the common practice of placing tubes in the ear canal to drain fluid would have stopped the condition. There is now an effort to raise enough money to pay for the procedure that will save what hearing she has left.

For the students and for Jon and Pat Erickson, the first time to the batey was eye opening. UVM sophomore Aly Fox was one of the students on the trip, and said of her arrival, “We were immediately swarmed by 80 kids who were not wearing shoes. They were very dirty and had snot running down from their noses.” She continued saying, “The most amazing thing was the smiles on the faces of the kids. They were genuinely good-natured and just wanted to have fun.”

One of the main difficulties students faced was the language barrier. One student present, Elizabeth Sipple, was fluent in Creole having spent time in Haiti before. This allowed for a more effective way of communicating with the children who often struggled with French and Spanish.

The students worked with the 10-14 year olds of the batey in groups separated by gender. If they had worked in a co-ed environment, the young boys and girls would be too embarrassed to talk about sex. One thing that shocked UVM students was the great misinformation the children had in regard to their bodies. Allyson Black-Foley, UVM sophomore, said, “They had no idea about their bodies. [The Grassroots Soccer curriculum] assumes a basic knowledge of how one’s body works so we had to go back and teach them basic biology before any of the HIV/AIDS education could even be beneficial.”

When they asked the children about their understanding of sex, many girls believed that they could avoid pregnancy by simply urinating after sex. This was nearly the same for many of the boys who believed that if they urinated before sex they would not be able impregnate their partner.

According to Jon Erickson, the adults of the community were very responsive to the work by the Batey Libertad Coalition. Papito, the leader of the batey, thanked them greatly and supported their efforts in every way he could. The Grassroots Soccer approach does not use soccer as an end but rather as a means to spark a more structured approach to improving conditions in the community. Jon Erickson said of this, “Soccer has gotten them organized and through that there has been many spinoffs.”

The Future

The travel-study course was only the beginning of the action that Jon and Pat Erickson as well UVM students are taking to help Batey Libertad. In late February there was a silent auction for Haitian and Dominican art that raised nearly $3000 for Batey Libertad. Jon and Pat Erickson will be traveling to Batey Libertad over spring break to provide more assistance in developing an efficient medical clinic that will capable of adequately providing care for the community.

Their work has sparked the interest of doctors in the Burlington community who will most likely volunteer their time to work hands-on in Batey Libertad. Jon and Pat will lead another group of students to Batey Libertad during Thanksgiving Break next fall. A significant change in the overall wellbeing will take significant time, but as Jon Erickson said of his work, “It’s all about building social capital.”