Charitable soccer organizations start in all kinds of ways and for every kind of reason. In all my research Grassroot Soccer (GRS) is the only organization to start after the founder won a million dollars in a TV reality show. Ethan Zohn was the winner of Survivor: Africa, and with his winnings he invested in Grassroot Soccer. This organization has since become one of the biggest in the soccer charity community, having reached over 500 000 children to date. The focus for their soccer centric education programs in South Africa is HIV/AIDS awareness.
I spoke with James Donald and Kelly Baird of the GRS office in Cape Town, South Africa. James is the program manager for all of South Africa, and is a native South African. Kelly is the Finance and Grant Management Intern, and is from Denver Colorado. These two are part of an organization that is larger than any other soccer for social change program I have come across, yet James still says they “pride themselves on running quite lean.”
Kelly is not a typical intern as most have just completed their college education, or are still enrolled. Kelly, a former Division I soccer player from the University of Oregon, was 5 years out of school and settled into a steady job when she decided there was something else she wanted to do with her life. I asked her what motivated her to move to Cape Town, leaving behind Denver and her comfortable job. Her reply was she “always wanted to stay close to soccer and I was tired of working 80 hour work weeks and not really knowing what I was working for. So I took a chance to see what GRS was all about and see what kind of impact my skills could have in a different country.”
What kind of organization has she gotten herself into? To give you an idea of the size: in South Africa alone there is the head office in Cape Town which has about 20 to 40 people working there at any given time, half of which are interns. They have 4 other field offices with 2-5 full time staff, programs running at 10 sites, and 20-40 coaches who do the actual work with the children at each office. Each coach works with around 20 children at a time over a program of up to 5 weeks. All these numbers add up to them reaching more than 27 000 children last year. Then there are all the partner organizations they work with as advisers, assisting them when they are setting up their own group. In James’ words: “We really are a collection of a lot of small community organizations that are managed by our office.”
Kelly’s experience is of great interest to me as a fellow North American. I asked her how she has benefited personally and professionally from leaving the USA for Cape Town and GRS. Her glowing and passionate response was: “it has allowed me to grow in confidence about what my skills are and what I can offer in a different industry and a different cultural setting. GRS has forced me to step outside my comfort zone and to be open to new opportunities and new experiences while still having a strong support network around me. GRS has allowed me to work hard, but also have time to travel an amazing country and continue to learn what I don’t know and couldn’t learn in school, and in the USA.” Kelly is a prime example of what volunteerism abroad can do for a person. She is immediately recognizable as passionate, and gives a great interview as she has so much to talk about. Saying ‘oh I’m having a great time’ is easy. Saying “it is refreshing to know that what I do and strive to do each day really does matter to someone,” as she did, along with many other warm and glowing comments, is when you know something genuine is going on. I believe that GRS is onto something with their motivated and excellent staff. I greatly anticipate seeing the programs of Grassroot Soccer in action with children around South Africa and documenting them on this soccer blog for you all to read about.