UCSF Researcher's Goal: Use Soccer to Fight AIDS

March 24, 2005

Tommy Clark

Kicking a soccer ball and kicking HIV/AIDS may seem worlds apart. But for Scottish-born, African-raised, and American-educated Tommy Clark, both goals have converged into a breakaway success story.

Clark, 35, a research fellow at UCSF's famed Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS), is founder and executive director of Grassroot Soccer. Since 2002, the international AIDS awareness and education organization has trained professional soccer players to teach 12- to 14-year-olds about HIV and AIDS prevention. Grassroot Soccer now operates in three African countries and more than 90 U.S. high schools through its American arm, KickAIDS.


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Support has come quickly. Grassroot Soccer recently received $500,000 in Gates Foundation funds in addition to the $70,000 in seed money awarded in 2002. But success took longer to gel because, Clark admits, the rough details of the organization bounced around in his head for years. "All through medical school at Dartmouth, I knew I wanted to do something in Africa, but I wasn't sure what would work." As ideas came and went, one constant remained for Clark. In Africa, the power of soccer is a force from the largest cities to the most remote villages. "After living and playing soccer in Zimbabwe, I knew that soccer players are considered cultural heroes," Clark says. So, he asked himself, why not trade on their popularity in some way? Clark, who has a knack for finding and inspiring others of like mind, began talking to curriculum experts and behavioral change theorists on both coasts while he pursued his medical studies at Dartmouth and later at the University of New Mexico. It was not enough to put heroes in the classroom, he learned. To be effective role models in a HIV-awareness program, soccer players needed a unified message, clear objectives and a goal-oriented lesson plan that would not bully or browbeat. Moreover, the learning activities had to be fun and relevant and mix soccer players and students. The preparation paid off. As part of his pediatric residency, Clark needed to design a community project. Not surprisingly, Clark chose a community he knew well, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, that country's second largest city and Clark's former home. Seeing the HIV/AIDS Impact on Zimbabwe Clark's first exposure to Africa came as a teenager, when his family moved from Aberdeen to Zimbabwe. Later, his father, a former professional soccer player-turned-coach, relocated the family to New Hampshire. Clark attended Dartmouth and starred as a center midfielder on that university's soccer squad, enabling him to earn a spot on one of Zimbabwe's professional teams upon graduation. "I was the only white player on the team," Clark recalls, "but I felt entirely at home and everyone treated me well." But something had changed in the six years he had been gone. Young friends were dying and no one was saying why. "I knew they had died of AIDS, but the obituaries didn't mention it and the families didn't either." Fast forward to 2002 and the situation in Zimbabwe and across sub-Saharan Africa had worsened still. AIDS has taken a terrible toll on Africans, especially children. Some quick facts: • 100 children are born with HIV in Zimbabwe every day • Zimbabwe has the world's fourth worst rate of HIV/AIDS • Zimbabwe's child mortality rates have increased 50 percent since 1990 • 3 million children younger than 15 are now living with AIDS in southern Africa Soccer Becomes a Tool Against HIV/AIDS In 2002, his outline for a pilot AIDS awareness project in hand, Clark flew from New Mexico to Zimbabwe. He met with the local representative from the Centers for Disease Control and an official of the nation's soccer federation. Clark won their endorsement and with feedback from focus groups in Bulawayo and the promised cooperation of some star soccer players, Clark was primed. But before the pilot program could roll out into the first classroom in Bulawayo, Clark needed startup money for everything from T-shirts to curriculum materials. "I came back to the U.S. and contacted soccer friends around the country," Clark explains. The soccer community rallied around small fundraising events held in different American cities. "We usually raised between $1,000 to $15,000," Clark recalls of those early days. When seed funding from the Gates Foundation came through that same year, Grassroot Soccer came to life. The essence of the two-week curriculum, devised by a consultant from Cornell University, is frank and friendly dialogue and good-natured competition. The plan: • Targets 12- to 14-year-olds • Focuses on soccer players talking openly about HIV/AIDS • Uses team competitions to break the ice and trump any discomfort about the subject matter • Includes 10 to 15 contests, with such names as Facts or Nonsense (myths about AIDS) and Juggling My Life (juggle balls that represent all of life's tasks and choices) to make its points about HIV prevention and build awareness • Concludes with public graduation ceremony and presentation of a Grassroots Soccer T-shirt To date, 15 top professional soccer players have been trained as classroom educators. More than 4000 Bulawayo school children have participated. Pilot programs also are starting in neighboring Zambia and Botswana. Growing Grassroot Soccer Clark, who will make UCSF CAPS his home for the next few years, might be excused if tempted to sit on his laurels, if only for a few days. But the humanitarian impulses that coalesced into Grassroot Soccer keep him as restive as ever. "I am at UCSF to learn techniques that will help me evaluate how effective our program is in changing behavior over time," Clark explains. Among the questions Clark would like to answer definitively are: • What "dosage" of the Grassroot Soccer curriculum is most effective? • Has community collaboration increased? • What level of involvement of professional players is most influential? • Is the program affecting gender relationships within the community? Such answers will be essential as GRS grows. Clark and his organization have an ambitious agenda. With the help of the latest Gates Foundation grant, they want to add more schools, train more educators, including American college players acting as "Soccer Corps" volunteers, build awareness and alliances with other non-governmental organizations, universities, and foundations and transform the organization from a purely volunteer network to a more formal non-profit. By 2010, when South Africa hosts the World Cup, Clark hopes that GRS will be positioned to saturate southern Africa with effective HIV prevention messages and programs. "It will be the perfect platform," he adds. In the meantime, some duties will stay the same. "I plan to keep fundraising." Source: Jeff Miller

Related Links

Center for AIDS Prevention Studies Grassroot Soccer