Grassroot Soccer: Educate. Inspire. Mobilize.

Castleton men's soccer head coach John O'Connor (left) and his son Michael (right) with Grassroot Soccer co-founder Methembe Ndlovu (center) at the 2017 Notre Dame Elite ID Camp. O'Connor coached Ndlovu at Dartmouth.
Castleton men's soccer head coach John O'Connor (left) and his son Michael (right) with Grassroot Soccer co-founder Methembe Ndlovu (center) at the 2017 Notre Dame Elite ID Camp. O'Connor coached Ndlovu at Dartmouth.

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CASTLETON, Vt. – Consider this: fewer than 30 percent of youth in developing countries have basic knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Now take a minute to digest what you just read. Yes, it is a staggering number. This is especially true when you consider that nearly half of the world's population – more than 3 billion people – lives in a developing nation.

That's where Grassroot Soccer comes in.

Reaching a youth audience of more than 2.1 million people, Grassroot Soccer (GRS) is an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize at-risk youth in developing countries to overcome their greatest health challenges, live healthier, more productive lives and be agents for change in their communities. Spread across 45 countries, reaching over 100,000 youth per year, GRS currently has a multitude of opportunities for internships and mentoring programs.

Created by former Dartmouth College men's soccer player Tommy Clark, the global GRS movement has its roots in the small rural community of Norwich, Vt. One of many people to watch its influence explode over the past several years, Castleton University men's soccer head coach John O'Connor has been there since the beginning.

Starting as an assistant for the Dartmouth men's soccer program, O'Connor coached Clark before helping mentor the eventual co-founder of GRS, Methembe Ndlovu.

Following his graduation, Clark decided to join a professional league in Zimbabwe, where he met Ndlovu. After a year of playing abroad, he returned to the United States to enroll in the Dartmouth medical program. It was during this time that Clark convinced Ndlovu to join the Big Green's men's soccer program.

"When [Clark] returned [to Zimbabwe] after he graduated medical school, he had found that four or five of his ex-teammates had passed away from HIV or AIDS," O'Connor stated. "So [Clark and Ndlovu] kind of came together with this idea to create this nonprofit to educate the kids and Zimbabwe about HIV and AIDS and since then it has grown."

Grassroot Soccer always had the potential to be a global movement and its supporting cast helped it get to where it is now. "Even initially, when they first started the organization, Ethan Zohn - an ex-college soccer player who appeared as one of the first participants on Survivor - came on-board," O'Connor mentioned. "At that point, he had become a celebrity. But even now, if you look at the Board of Directors for Grassroot Soccer, it is a 'who's who' in many ways."

David Beckham, Bill and Melinda Gates, Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor headline the list of well-known names that have thrown their support behind the movement. GRS boasts the support of more than 35 featured partners, including the likes of the USAID, the Peace Corps, Football for Hope, Positive Tracks and the Special Olympics.

O'Connor's Role

Starting with his stint as the head coach of the University of Rhode Island men's soccer program, O'Connor organized benefit games. "We used to just take the gate receipts and give it to them. Now we have expanded to not only doing a game but also doing a tournament. All of the proceeds of that goes to Grassroot."

Through tournament admission, t-shirt and merchandise sales, donations and more, O'Connor has helped has raise upwards of $2,000 per year. He has also had several of his athletes complete internships with the organization. "There are other places around the country that are all connected via Dartmouth that do these." That list includes Dartmouth itself, Notre Dame, Wesleyan University and more.

What it means to Castleton

When it comes to the "Castleton Way," the most important piece of it is the family atmosphere on campus and throughout the community. Therefore it is no surprise that the movement and tournaments have been so graciously accepted. "In the campus community, President Wolk always believed in it and I know President Scolforo believes in it. I think that's another part is that we are not just doing something in the local community, but we do it a little more globally and it makes an impact."

As far as the men's soccer programs at Castleton, the players picked it up almost immediately and ran with it, looking forward to the event each year. "For our guys, I think it is something they look forward to participating in. It's really fun, there is music going on during the tournament and it has become so recognizable. I even see students on campus wearing t-shirts from two years ago. So it has become something that is a tradition for them to do."

While it is meant to be a fun event that provides a break for many, it can also have a surreal feeling to some. "Now that we have more kids coming from African countries that are playing for us that have been refugees in Burlington, I think - for them - it hits home a little tighter. It's not too far away from where they grew up."

The 2018 Edition

As the organization and the movement continues to grow, the Spartans men's soccer program looks to help it become more impactful. Now in the fifth year of the 3v3 PickUp Tournament at Castleton, the event has become one to mark on the calendar.

Registration is still open for the tournament, which will take place at Castleton University's Dave Wolk Stadium at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7. There are four different age groups, ranging from Grades 4-6 to Adult. The current price – until Oct. 1 – is just $30 per team. Sign-ups with continue until Oct. 5, while same-day registration is first-come-first-serve and only available if there is space in the requested age group. Please see the registration form for more details. All proceeds from the event will benefit Grassroot Soccer.

"This year, it has become more of a staple. People expect it to happen and we hope it continues as a vital part of the entire Castleton community. It has become more of an event now. Last year we had an emcee that had fun facts during the games. With our youth soccer club, those kids are involved in the event as well. They all expect it to happen, especially the younger ones and they are excited about it."

 

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