05/15/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Serving Through Sports: My Universal Language

This post by Global Health Corps Fellow Casey Kilburn is part of a special blog series focused on national service in support of the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project and upcoming summit on national service. Global Health Corps works to mobilize a global community of emerging leaders to build the movement for health equity. Through year-long fellowships in the US and worldwide, Global Health Corps fellows engage, serve, and are helping to lead this movement. Barbara Bush is the CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps and she also serves on the Franklin Project Leadership Council.


One year, one life completely changed, sculpted, molded...A year of service on the front lines, yet deep in the heart of an unknown country; full of dense jungle and far more pain, bravery, and grit then I will probably ever know.

My dad boldly served this country, alongside thousands of other young Americans in the Vietnam War; something many would prefer to completely put behind us. Although I was born 20 years later, I will never forget this time, the pictures and the stories.

I'll be honest, my natural inclination is probably more towards the hippy throwing up a peace sign, munching on granola, while singing "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." But to be very clear, I am so deeply grateful and humbled by all of the men and women who have fought for this country throughout our history. Not to mention those who served behind the front lines who were nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers, family members, etc. They served to educate, to love, to support and serve on behalf of the country.

Service, to one's self, one's family and friends, one's country, and to a greater global goal should be an integral part of our culture. If there is one thing that I have learned through my dad's experience, and have been taught from both my parents, is the importance of service.

My service will not take the same form as my dad's or the typical military path we tend to imagine when we think of "serving your country." However, I am serving my country in my own way. Last year I joined Global Health Corps, along with 105 other young people from around the world. GHC places recent college graduates and young professionals from diverse backgrounds in health non-profits and government offices in the US, East Africa and Southern Africa for a year-long paid fellowship in order to strengthen and learn from the organizations.

Prior to GHC, I worked with Grassroot Soccer in Zambia, which runs HIV/AIDS education programs for youth across sub-Saharan Africa, using sport as a tool to educate and inspire communities to stop the spread of HIV. Being a college and life-long soccer player/fan, I am incredibly inspired by the way sport can be used as a universal language and tool for social change. This experience led me to GHC and my role with The Grassroot Project (TGP), which uses much of the same curriculum and methods as Grassroot Soccer, but works specifically on addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in DC; our nations capitol.

I was shocked to learn about the unacceptable HIV prevalence in D.C. (is 1 in 20; the highest in the country) and drawn to TGP's unique and effective approach of using Division 1 college athletes to serve as mentors and facilitators of our program; going in and working directly with middle-school students across the district. Throughout this year I have been able to have a very tangible and large role in a small but rapidly expanding nonprofit, addressing an exceptional health need in an exciting and innovative way.

My work at TGP has inspired, frustrated, humbled, and tested me in numerous ways. The issues and inequities I have seen at times are difficult to grasp, yet at the same time seeing hundreds of D1 student athletes volunteering their time each semester after hours of practice and school, to see a change in their community, keeps me coming in day-after-day.

My generation is committed to service. The evidence for this can be found in the over 9,000 applications to Global Health Corps. Every year, applications for Teach For America, AmeriCorps and CityYear greatly exceed demand. There is no shortage in demand for service. For AmeriCorps, hundreds of thousands of applicants apply for 80,000 positions (of which only 40,000 are full-time).

The symbolic nature of our citizenship can be visualized in the image of a waving American flag, but what is actually encompassed in truly being a citizen of one's country? Many countries around the world have a mandated minimum 1-year of National Service or "Unarmed/noncombat civilian service" (typically for young people ages 18-30, carried out in various sectors and positions) including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Greece, Iran, Mexico, Paraguay, Switzerland, etc. . Now, imagine living in a country, as the Franklin Project puts it, "in which all young Americans are asked, 'Where did you serve?' and can answer with pride." The Franklin Project seeks to make it culturally expected that all young Americans between 18-28 complete a "service year."

Through service we can all contribute to shaping our country and even act as catalysts for a lifetime of service. Find your passion, your desire, and seek out ways to make your talent a service to others.

Casey Kilburn was born and raised in Raleigh, NC, where she also attended North Carolina State University and played on the Women's Division-1 soccer team. After graduation in 2012 she spent a year with Grassroot Soccer in Zambia as a Monitoring & Evaluation intern. She then joined the Global Health Corps fellowship as a Program Manager at The Grassroot Project, which uses a similar method as Grassroot Soccer to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in D.C. by providing middle-school students the knowledge and essential life-skills to protect themselves and their community.