Using the sport of soccer to get attention, Dartmouth graduate Tommy Clark is committed to saving lives in Africa. And he has convinced a number of former Big Green players to help with his cause.
When Tommy Clark graduated from Dartmouth College in 1992 and returned to Zimbabwe, where he had lived as a young teenager, to play soccer for the Bulawayo Highlanders, he discovered that AIDS had established a foothold in the country.
Worse yet, he learned that the disease was seldom acknowledged publicly, as the cause of death remained secret at many of the funerals he attended. Not until he returned to the United States and enrolled at Dartmouth?s medical school did Clark begin to realize how many of his former coaches and teammates were dying of the disease.
Clark graduated from medical school in 2001 and headed to the University of New Mexico to complete his residency in pediatrics. That's where the idea for Grassroot Soccer began to take shape and where his plan became concrete in an assignment to propose a specific solution to a problem he had seen in his pediatric training.
"It was an opportunity for me to put down on paper the idea that I'd had," Clark said.
Now, five years later, Grassroot Soccer is a fully funded, internationally recognized AIDS-awareness organization that with Clark as its Executive Director -- trains professional soccer players to be HIV/AIDS educators in Africa where safe sex and HIV/AIDS education have been widely neglected.
"He combined his passion for soccer with his medical career and came up with a brilliant idea," said current Dartmouth soccer coach Jeff Cook, who has known Clark for 13 years. "Talking about safe sex over there is taboo, so the idea to use professional soccer players, who are icons to those kids, to go in and talk to the kids is really incredible."
In Zimbabwe alone, where Grassroot Soccer debuted in 2003, the average life expectancy had plummeted from 61 years in 1990 to just 33 in 2005, with the increase in AIDS-related deaths the precipitating factor behind the decline.
The United Nations reports that 90 percent of all children under age 15 living with HIV reside in sub-Saharan Africa; for that reason, Grassroot Soccer is aimed primarily at students ages 10-16, the most vulnerable members of African societies.
Clark's affinity for the people of Zimbabwe began as a 12-year-old in 1983. His father, Bobby, had played soccer professionally in Scotland and moved to Zimbabwe after retiring to coach the Highlanders. The family stayed in Zimbabwe only a year but the experience left a lasting mark on Tommy, who played for his father for four years at Dartmouth and returned to Bulawayo at age 22.
Bobby Clark coached at Dartmouth from 1985 to 1993, and Tommy helped the Big Green to two NCAA Tournament quarterfinal appearances, in 1988 and 1990, and was named an All-Ivy center midfielder as a senior in 1991. Clark decided to pursue professional soccer, but passed on Europe and instead headed to Africa.
"If I really wanted to play professional soccer I don't know why I'd go to Zimbabwe," Clark says. "I can't really remember what I was thinking, but I just think I really liked living there as a kid and really thought it was a special place with special people, so I was excited to go back."
Bobby Clark -- now the head coach at Notre Dame -- was not surprised by his son's decision. "He had fallen in love with his experiences in Africa and Tommy was always very much a soccer nut," Bobby says. "This was an opportunity for him to go out and play a little bit and just go back to Africa. I don't think he over-thought it out."
The combination of his experiences in Africa and his training as a pediatrician made Tommy Clark acutely aware of the need for AIDS education, and his idea for Grassroot Soccer was well-received by his peers and instructors. But its development was hardly a simple process. "None of this was anything I had a background in," Clark said of both government regulation and program development. "My background was in soccer and medicine and coaching."
He began by building a core group to help take Grassroot Soccer from concept to reality, reaching out to friends and fellow soccer players Kirk Friedrich and Methembe Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean native, both of whom had played for the Highlanders. Clark helped Ndlovu apply to Dartmouth, where he was All-Ivy on the pitch before graduating in 1997.
Clark applied for non-profit status for Grassroot Soccer in the spring of 2002 and made his initial trip to Zimbabwe that summer, meeting with government officials, teachers and professional soccer players to gauge the program's viability. After staging fund-raisers back in the States, the pilot activity was launched in January 2003. Clark then secured the help of former Dartmouth soccer standout Andrew Shue, an actor turned activist with connections to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose funding allowed Grassroot Soccer to expand its operations.
"I thought right away it was a brilliant idea," says Shue, who played for the Highlanders and taught math in Bulawayo following his Dartmouth graduation in 1989. "I have a team photo (of the Highlanders) up here on my wall and I can point to four of the starters that I played with who have all died from AIDS, which is a travesty."
Shue's help is emblematic of the Dartmouth connection to Zimbabwe. A number of Bobby Clark's former players have gone to Bulawayo to play, coach, teach and work with Grassroot Soccer. Bobby Clark, Ken Himmelman, Ted Henderson, Giuseppe Raviola and Kevin Borgmann all join Tommy Clark and Shue on the Board of Directors and Mary Turco, a Dartmouth professor of Women?s Studies, is the group?s chair.
For Tommy, the most heroic of the group is Ndlovu, a former captain of the Zimbabwe National Soccer Team. Absent from the country since early 2003, Ndlovu returned earlier this year to become the Grassroot Soccer country director for Zimbabwe despite immigration rules that will prevent him from returning to the United States for at least three years.
"For him, going back to Zimbabwe was a big deal," Clark says. "No one wants to go back to Zimbabwe; everyone in Zimbabwe is trying to get out. Methembe?s a very talented guy and can do anything, so when he went back this time it was a personal risk."
Ndlovu admits to having some concerns about re-entering the U.S., but says the chance to make a difference in the lives of those in his homeland is worth the trade-off. "I have seen changes," Ndlovu says. "The fact that there is a lot more open discussion about sex (and) HIV means we are going in the right direction ... When the program started, it seemed to be very difficult for people to discuss such issues openly."
Outside evaluations of the program back up Ndlovu. In August 2004 the Children's Health Council commended Grassroot Soccer for improving "student knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of social support related to HIV/AIDS." For his efforts, Clark was named the 2003 recipient of the Annie Dyson Child Advocacy Award for outstanding community service from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and he was presented with the Dartmouth Social Justice Award in 2005.
The publicity has only helped Grassroot Soccer develop. Since the Bulawayo pilot program began in 2003, Gates Foundation funding has been used to start programs in Botswana, Zambia and, most recently, South Africa, the site of the 2010 World Cup.
"We're just trying to build all the different pieces of the program right now,? Clark said recently." It's kind of alternating between being quite happy with what we've done and then being frustrated. We feel like we have a good program and a good concept, and we want to make sure we can reach as many kids as we can."
Ed. Note For the Children's Health Services report, please click here and to see the UN AIDS Fact Sheet, please click here. Each is a PDF document.
— E.J. Crawford