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Giving Something Back
November 27th, 2002 5:19PM

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Seeing the world thanks to soccer inspired some young Americans to found Grassroot Soccer, which is attacking the HIV crisis in Zimbabwe.

Tommy Clark has seen the world. Now he wants to give something back to it.

The Dartmouth star of the early 1990s grew up in Scotland, Zimbabwe and the United States. After college, he played in Africa, England, New Zealand and Albuquerque, N.M. Now in his second year of pediatric residency at the University of New Mexico, he might be expected to put soccer behind him. Instead, Clark is using the sport to educate youngsters thousands of miles away about HIV transmission and prevention.

In January, American players and coaches will head to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. There, in the city Clark fell in love with while playing with Highlanders FC, they'll train four Highlanders - three of them former or current national team players - as HIV educators. Then, in pairs - one American and one Zimbabwean - they'll head into high school classrooms and conduct four days of classes.

At the end of each eight-hour ''course,'' students and coaches will play soccer together. Finally, in a ceremony with friends and family, the youngsters will receive photos and certificates.

''It's something they'll hold onto and remember the rest of their lives,'' Clark says, referring to the memorabilia and HIV lessons.

''Soccer is the perfect vehicle for something like this,'' Clark says. ''Professional players are role models and kids learn best - they change their behavior positively the most - when they are influenced by people they look up to.''

Those are not original thoughts, of course. Stanford University behavioral therapist Albert Bandura expressed similar ideas in his ''social learning theory.'' Clark - whose father, Bobby, earned 17 caps for Scotland, then coached at Bulawayo, Aberdeen (youth), Dartmouth, Stanford and now Notre Dame as well as the New Zealand national team - met Bandura, who immediately embraced what came to be known as Grassroot Soccer.

''I had a great time in Zimbabwe in 1993 and '94,'' Tommy Clark says, ''playing and volunteering as a high school English teacher, but I always felt I could have done more. There were 50 kids in a class, and they had no textbooks. I brought my own books in, and the kids devoured them. They were desperate to learn.''

Desperate to learn about HIV and AIDS, too. Estimates of HIV infection rates range up to one-third of all adults in the nation of 11.2 million. By 2010, 35 percent of Zimbabwean children could be AIDS orphans. The disease has claimed several leading players, including three Highlanders.

''Mercedes Sibanda and Benjamin Kunjera were phenomenal,'' says Clark. ''I've never played with anyone better. No one at Swindon [the English club where Clark spent half a year] could compare with the top Highlanders.''

When UNM assistant professor of pediatrics Ben Hoffman challenged his residents to come up with plans for community medicine projects, he was only looking for concepts. But he was so excited by Clark's plan he freed up planning time for the resident.

Clark enlisted soccer friends as staff. Kirk Friedrichs, who played with Clark for the USISL's Albuquerque Geckos and for the Highlanders, is development director. He works as a waiter and draws a minimal salary from non-profit Grassroot Soccer.

Friedrichs will be joined by Methembe Ndlovu, a 1997 Dartmouth graduate and Zimbabwe international and now with the PDL Cape Cod Crusaders.

Known in Bulawayo, an old British colonial city of 1 million people, as ''The Mayor,'' the popular Ndlovu brings charisma, intelligence and diplomatic skills to the venture.

Two initial worries - that education leaders in Zimbabwe would not want to talk about HIV, and soccer players would be reluctant to get involved - were allayed on a recent trip. Clark, Friedrichs and Ndlovu met with headmasters and players and received firm commitments.

Clark's younger brother, Jamie, played for the San Jose Earthquakes after graduating from Stanford and serves as Grassroot's assistant director. Part of his job is to encourage American college players to join Grassroot as HIV educators.

Tommy Clark also enlisted the help of Andrew Shue, the former Dartmouth standout and ''Melrose Place'' star, and ''Survivor'' champion Ethan Zohn. Both played for the Highlanders.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is assisting as well. They are involved in curriculum design and will help evaluate the program for possible expansion.

''You have to have a dream,'' Clark says. ''If this project works, it can spread throughout Zimbabwe. ... Then we could look at South Africa, where we have some contacts, and other countries, too.''

Clark also hopes to educate American youth players about the HIV and AIDS crisis, both in the United States and Africa. He sees soccer camps as an excellent vehicle to get the message out.

''Soccer is the great equalizer,'' Clark says. ''It's easy to make friends with people from completely different backgrounds. So why not use those friendships to educate people and do something good?''

That attitude sits well with Clark's father, who always advocates giving something back to the game. He recalled his Dartmouth soccer camps for the New Hampshire Valley News: ''All the kids would look at their stuff, and I'd ask Methembe, 'When did you get your first pair of soccer shoes?' He'd say when he was 15 or 16. He played in bare feet until then.

''I always used to give our players the spoiled middle-class American-brats thing. I was talking about my own kids as well. I had it a lot easier than my parents, and there's no question a lot of kids who come to a place like Dartmouth or Stanford or Notre Dame have been well looked after. You hope they will want to give something back. This is the first group of boys I've had who are starting to give back.''

Tommy and Jamie Clark hope many Zimbabwean parents will live long enough to pass along life's lessons - and watch soccer matches - with their own sons and daughters.

by Youth Soccer Letter Editor Dan Woog



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