THE BLOG

The Grassroot Project: College Athletes Educating Children to Help End HIV/AIDS

02/02/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

The Grassroot Project (TGP) was started in 2009 by Tyler Spencer, an amazing young man and currently a Rhodes Scholar, whose vision was to use sports to educate at-risk youth in the community about HIV/AIDS awareness and education. He first saw this being done successfully using soccer on a trip he took to South Africa. Tyler was a one-man army, initially recruiting athletes from George Washington University (GW) to try to bring together athletes from all local area colleges to more effectively reach youth with information about HIV/AIDS. He was going to do this using games that teach lessons, and the messengers of those lessons were the college athletes rather than classroom teachers or health educators.

The program has grown and proven very successful over the past five years and now includes a small paid staff and volunteer athletes from GW, Georgetown University, Howard University, and the University of Maryland.

The Grassroot Project's curriculum focuses on creating fun, friendly and safe environments in which youth can learn healthy lifestyles. It gives students from middle and high schools a chance to share their feelings and beliefs while developing healthy attitudes and behaviors pertaining to HIV/AIDS through the use of interactive games and activities. The use of sports to influence social change and the ability of student athletes to connect to those in the program are what makes this an effective way of learning.

The ultimate goal of The Grassroot Project is to lead youth in creating an AIDS-free generation in the District of Columbia, a goal that is within reach if done right. Currently the Grassroot Project works at more than 40 sites across the city, through partnerships with DCPS, charter schools, the Boys and Girls Clubs, MetroTeen AIDS, Latin American Youth Center and DC SCORES.

The results of D.C.'s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey clearly showed how crucial this program still is. Students are having sex and not taking precautions. There is clear evidence that D.C. youth continue to engage in very risky behavior. They aren't using condoms, and in many cases they're not even using any birth control. There appears to be a disconnect in schools between, on the one hand, getting children ready to succeed by raising test scores in reading and math and, on the other, promoting healthy behavior through health and physical education classes. Ryan Pettengill, the current executive director of the Grassroot Project, said:

I appreciate the importance of traditional subjects. But if our goal is to get D.C. kids on a trajectory to succeed and lead healthy and productive lives and actually apply their academic knowledge to enrich their lives, we need to focus on reality. If a kid is math-literate and can read, that's great, but if they are in jail, malnourished, smoking pot, and pregnant at 17, that's not going to allow them to live up to their full potential and lead a productive and healthy life.

The D.C. State Board of Education had a working group this past year to rewrite the health and physical education benchmarks. The idea was to match benchmarks with the current needs for health and sex education. But in reality, even with this there is only a very small part of a child's education dedicated to teaching healthy lifestyles. The focus of schools is on raising test scores, and that often leaves little time for anything else.

So it makes integrating the work of the Grassroot Project into our students' lives so much more important. It is a unique program that can addresses these health issues head-on with an in-school model rather than after school, which would give access to all kids in school, not just the ones who show up voluntarily to an after-school program. By using college student athletes as role models in an engaging, interactive way, the program helps students pay more attention and learn more than they would through just traditional classroom instruction.

The strength of the Grassroot Project is that it specializes in HIV and sexual health. The rest of the enormous scope of what traditional teachers need to cover in health and physical education programs is still left to them. Last fall the Grassroot Project had the opportunity to show teachers what they can do, and they lined up to get more information and learn how TGP could come to their classroom.

Like all non-profit programs, the Grassroot Project needs the active support of the community to continue its work. They have an amazing group of volunteers, but they can always use more support. I urge you to take the time to find out more about the Grassroot Project. When you do, you will want to be a part of this amazing organization to help end HIV/AIDS.