For some athletes, it's not always just about the love of the game. The most famous ones can use their money and influence to make a difference in the world through donations and charity work.
And some, like fourth-year Stuart Phelps, strive to bring social awareness and change on a more fundamental level—through sport itself. He's currently organizing a three-on-three soccer tournament called Kicking AIDS in Africa. The event is sponsored by the Phoenix Phanatix and will take place Saturday, June 7, at Stagg Field.
Phelps, who played defense and midfield for the Maroons, is a field intern with Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS education in Africa—by far the most affected continent with over 22 million people living with the infection, according to the 2007 UNAIDS epidemic report.
"It's astounding, especially when you consider that by and large, HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease," Phelps said. "What fuels the spread of the disease is mainly lack of education and debilitating social stigma."
Based on the principles of Social Learning Theory, Grassroot Soccer places the sport—which is wildly popular on the African continent—at the center of a curriculum that unites the youth population with professional soccer players and other community role models, empowering participants with the knowledge and support necessary to fight the spread of the virus. Since 2003, the organization has achieved tremendous results through its athletics-driven method, increasing awareness, discussion, and continued action in their program sites across Africa. They have also formed partnerships with other non-profit and non-governmental organizations in order to spread their work to other countries on the continent.
"I think it's a unique and powerful approach to solving one of the greatest social injustices of our time," Phelps said. "It's a use of sports and role models that could be applicable not just in Africa, but in places like Russia, India, and China, places where HIV/AIDS is erupting while governments hesitate to act."
Phelps's playing career makes him a perfect fit for Grassroot Soccer, but the organization's direct humanitarian aim resonates with his family background as well. Phelps lived in West Africa until the age of four, as his father worked for USAID and his mother helped establish special education programs in the region.
"Talking with my parents about their experiences, and growing up in a family that values international development and aid work, greatly impacted my goals," Phelps said.
The Kicking AIDS in Africa tournament will accomplish two goals: The first is to raise funds to help cover the cost of Phelp's one-year internship, which will land him in Africa this autumn. There, Phelps will train at the newly built Grassroot Soccer headquarters—funded in part by a grant from FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body—before being dispatched to project sites along with other field interns and locally based trainers.
Although a year can go by quickly, Phelps's impression of the work done by Grassroot Soccer has been a positive and encouraging one.
"Right now, I'm unsure what my plans are afterwards, but it could be anything from staying another year in South Africa to working in a health clinic on an Indian Reservation in Montana, to doing AIDS work in Chicago, to applying for medical school," Phelps said. "From my experience with [Grassroot Soccer] already, I imagine I will be involved with the organization in some fashion long after my internship is over."
Organizing the three-on-three tournament has the added purpose of increasing awareness around campus. On that front, Phelps knows even the smallest bit of exposure is important. "The tournament is obviously very small in size in the big scheme of things, but even simple conversations I've had with people about HIV/AIDS because of the tournament have been meaningful," he said. "I also hope people just come out and enjoy themselves playing soccer."
Although forms for Kicking AIDS in Africa are due today to Phoenix Phanatix at Ratner, Phelps welcomes late entries and questions regarding both the event and Grassroot Soccer. He can be reached at email@example.com. The tournament begins at 1 p.m. at Stagg Field on June 7.