Clark '92 uses soccer experience to promote HIV awareness

by Ben Reed | 11/6/06 6:00am

After completing a successful soccer career at Dartmouth, Tommy Clark '92 pursued his dream of playing professional soccer in a country whose own inhabitants were often searching for a way out.

In Bulawayo, the second largest city in landlocked, sub-Saharan Zimbabwe, where Clark had lived for a few years as a teenager, the 22-year old graduate suited up for the Bulawaya Highlanders, a sobering experience that might not have advanced his soccer career, but impacted his life in ways that he never could have foreseen.

As a soccer pro and volunteer English teacher at the English Youth Contact Center, Clark watched several of his teammates, fellow teachers at the school and other friends and acquaintances fall victim to HIV/AIDS, which has ravaged the country. Because of powerful stigmas often attached to the disease, their funeral services would often not even acknowledge their cause of death.

While his stay in Zimbabwe truly brought to life the harsh reality of the AIDS pandemic and the desperate need for improved awareness, it also showed him the immense popularity of soccer in the region, especially among the younger teenagers most vulnerable to the disease.

"Soccer is more popular there than people in this country can imagine,"

said Clark, who grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland. "They have fewer choices in Africa, and soccer is one of the few that people have. It's a huge deal for these kids."

Experiencing both the devastation of HIV/AIDS and the power of soccer in Zimbabwe inspired an idea for Clark that would eventually develop into Grassroot Soccer, a non-profit organization that he founded and currently manages as the executive director from his office in White River Junction, Vt.

The organization trains professional soccer players to administer an HIV education/prevention curriculum to African youths in weeklong camps and after-school programs.Initially launched in Zimbabwe in 2003, Grassroot now operates in Zambia, South Africa and Botswana as well, and has already reached tens of thousands of youngsters.

"It's been incredibly successful in bringing attention to HIV and AIDS in Africa and having an impact and really affecting a lot of people's lives over there," said Dartmouth soccer head coach Jeff Cook, who has become good friends with Clark since serving as an assistant coach for the Big Green from 1994-96. "It's an incredible program really."

Clark has focused his program on the region of the world that HIV has affected most severely. According to the Global Health Council, 90 percent of people with HIV live in the developing world, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2003 and 2005, about a million new people in the region were infected.

UNICEF's web site reports that in Zimbabwe alone, as many as two million people and 25 percent of the adult population were living with HIV in 2003.

Despite the country's tragic circumstances, Clark had enjoyed living there as a 14-year-old when his father, Bobby Clark -- a former professional soccer player in Scotland and future Dartmouth coach -- moved the family to Zimbabwe to coach the Highlanders.

After leading the Dartmouth soccer team, coached by his father, to two NCAA Tournament quarterfinal appearances, earning All-Ivy honors and being named team captain, the midfielder decided to play professionally. Instead of trying to make a name for himself on a more glamorous European club, however, Clark headed back to the African country that he remembered so fondly -- a decision that perplexes him even today.

"I liked the people and I enjoyed living there," Clark said. "But I think now, if I was serious about being a pro soccer player, why would I go there? I can't remember why I made that choice."

After returning to the United States and graduating from Dartmouth Medical School in 2001, Clark made plans to start the organization while he completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of New Mexico.

To get Grassroot Soccer off and running, he received assistance from co-founders Ethan Zohn, Kirk Friedrich and Methembe Ndlovu '97, an All-Ivy Dartmouth soccer player and native of Zimbabwe who captained the country's national team and played with Clark on the Highlanders in 1993. Ndlovu has since moved back to Zimbabwe, working as the Grassroot country director there, a decision that Clark deeply admires.

"I think he's pretty much a one in 10 million guy," Clark said. "For someone from his very humble background to basically be a top soccer player in the country, and one of the smarter guys in the country, and then to choose to go back to Zimbabwe when so many other people were choosing to leave was a very noble and very brave thing to do."

The program that Clark, Ndlovu and their colleagues have developed relies upon aspects of Stanford psychologist and Grassroot advisor Albert Bandura's social learning theory. His findings emphasize the importance of role models to build self-efficacy -- the personal belief that one can succeed in achieving specific goals -- and change patterns of behavior. Grassroot's hope is that if children and teenagers can learn about the threat that HIV poses from some of their heroes, the message will stick.

The curriculum employs games and activities, many of them involving soccer, to educate the students while actively engaging them in a fun environment.

"People get very excited about sports, especially kids. In a sense it's the carrot on the stick," Clark said about using soccer as an educational tool. "If the kids want to see and hear about soccer players and soccer, it gets them where we want them."

As the organization has grown, Clark has benefited from numerous ties to the Dartmouth community. A former actor and the brother of actress Elizabeth Shue, Andrew Shue '89, who played for the Highlanders after graduating, helped Grassroot secure a $500,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, amounting to a quarter of the organization's annual operating budget.

Several other Dartmouth soccer players have played for the Highlanders, and Ted Henderson '89, Ken Himmelman '90, Giuseppe Raviola '94 and Dartmouth women's studies professor Mary Turco '78 currently sit on Grassroot Soccer's Board of Directors.

Grassroot's close ties to campus were also demonstrated in last month's inaugural barefoot soccer tournament, held on the Green on Oct. 7. 150 students took part in the event, which raised more than $3,000 for Grassroot Soccer, and made even more members of the Dartmouth community aware of the organization's work.

After spending her summer volunteering and doing research in Africa, Kristina Gebhard '09 was eager to start her own "Lose The Shoes" team.

"I spent my summer in Kenya and saw firsthand the power of sports in educating communities," she said. "It's especially important that the leaders of the organization are themselves members of the communities which they serve. Grassroot Soccer does that -- its leaders are in fact icons, role models the kids really look up to."

In hopes of reaching as many people as possible, the next step for Grassroot Soccer is to familiarize other organizations with its curriculum, and allow them to use their own infrastructure and personnel to work for HIV prevention.

In one such program, Grassroot has teamed with John's Hopkins University to teach 120 Ethiopian physical education teachers to deliver the Grassroot curriculum in their schools. Clark expects that the program will graduate as many as one million kids by 2008.

While he recognizes that changes in the attitudes and behaviors of people throughout a region of the world will always be difficult, if not impossible, to measure, Clark has been able to watch his idea take shape and grow into a well-funded, award-winning organization that is continuing to gain attention and influence lives. And the journey has taught Clark at least one valuable life lesson.

"I guess it's made me realize that you really can, with the right luck and the right help, make some of your crazy ideas become a reality," he said.

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