A Vision for Athletes to Help Social Causes Realized

July 19, 2012

By Elaina Loveland

The following appeared in the July/August issue of International Educator magazine.

Tyler Spencer hadn't traveled much outside of his small Virginia hometown until he turned 18. He first visited South Africa and Mozambique as part of a traditional study abroad course through the University of Virginia. He was an environmental science major and he expected to be drawn to the parks in the area and learn about long-term conservation efforts around them. Once he got there, though, he says the entire course of his life changed.

"The environment seemed like a distant concern in the context of immediate threats to the health of people I met," he says. "The toll of HIV/AIDS was most shocking to me. It's a preventable disease, but in some areas of South Africa, the prevalence is as high as one in four."

He returned home, gave it some thought, and wrote a letter to his dean asking to not only change his major, but design his own in international health and development. The dean agreed, and Spencer spent the next year studying at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and completing an internship in public health. And after that, he designed his own education abroad experience back in South Africa, but working on health issues instead of environmental ones this time around.

"I created a proposal to go back to South Africa and work on developing HIV prevention programs that used soccer as a tool to break the stigma of the disease," he says. He secured funding from DeBeers and its Grassroot Soccer program, which uses community-based sports programs to spread messages about AIDS.

"I spent eight weeks in the summer of 2007 traveling around DeBeers diamond mines, setting up Grassroot Soccer programs," he says. The final month of his trip was spent evaluating the new program sites.

In his senior year of college, he enrolled in a volunteer project doing HIV/AIDS research in Washington, D.C. Once again, he says, he was in for a surprise.

"I was shocked to learn that right in our nation's capital, the HIV prevalence is similar to prevalence rates in many sub-Saharan African countries," he says.

Using his experience in South Africa as a model, Spencer created The Grassroot Project, which works with Division I student athletes from Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Howard University to spread the word about the disease with youth through games and sports in more than 30 city locations. Kids play games with the athletes over eight weeks and, in the process of having fun, talk about AIDS, their personal experiences with it, and prevention.

The Grassroot Project also runs a program called Team Up that matches 15 at-risk Washington D.C. teens with their peers in South Africa. They work through the same program for six weeks, communicating with each other via e-mail and telephone, and in 2010, a group from the U.S. traveled to South Africa. The South African group visited Washington, D.C. the following year.

The Grassroot Project is program of Athletes United for Social Justice, a nonprofit organization that Spencer founded in 2009. "When I started Athletes United for Social Justice, I had a really broad vision for it to be an umbrella for multiple projects using athletes to address all kinds of social issues," Spencer explains. "For now, The Grassroot Project has taken off, so most of our efforts have been concentrated there, but in the future, we plan to embark on additional projects."

"My role in the organization has been hugely enhanced by my work in South Africa," says Spencer. His own study abroad didn't end with South Africa, either. In 2009 he received a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in Great Britain, and he received a master's degree in evidence-based social research last year. He's currently working on his PhD in public health at Oxford, and travels to study youth-led HIV prevention organizations around the world; when this issue of International Educator went to press, he was in Kenya.

Eventually, he hopes to work in some facet of public service, although he's unsure of exactly how or where. One thing he knows, though, is that his time abroad has changed everything for him.

Read the rest of "Designing Destiny" from the July/August 2012 issue of International Educator


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