Athletics News

GW Student-Athletes Aim to Make a Difference Through Grassroot Colonials

Women's basketball sophomore Alexis Chandler has maintained a relationship with her students during winter break.

Jan. 14, 2014

Learn More About The Grassroot Project

Al Jazeera Piece on The Grassroot Project

At George Washington, student-athletes strive to be champions in competition, in the classroom - and in the community. A number of GW student-athletes have joined together to make a difference by educating at-risk youth in the community about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention through The Grassroot Project and Grassroot Colonials.

Modeled after the success of Grassroot Soccer's fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa, The Grassroot Project is built on the premise that kids learn best from role models, people they look up to and trust. Combining a talent and passion for sports with the ability to work hard to achieve their goals, collegiate student-athletes are powerful role models for today's youth. Utilizing these student-athlete role models, The Grassroot Project uses sports and games that teach lessons rather than traditional lecture-based education programs taught by teachers and health educators. The curriculum focuses on creating a fun, friendly and safe environment in which the students learn healthy lifestyles.

"I first got involved in Grassroots as a freshman when the older girls on my team convinced me to attend Grassroot Colonials training," said women's soccer senior Jane Wallis, who serves as Grassroot Colonials program coordinator. "The immediate connection with the youth in D.C. had me hooked and I developed a passion for working with non-profit organizations."

Lacrosse junior Mackenzie Jones also started with Grassroot Colonials as a freshman. "I was hooked at my first training session when I learned that one in 20 people in D.C. is infected with HIV," she said. "I knew that I had to be a part of the change that Grassroot Colonials was going to make in our local community."

Grassroot Colonials started in Fall 2009 as the second Grassroot program in D.C. with 15 student-athletes participating and has grown exponentially in size since then.

"One of my favorite things about The Grassroot Project is the chance to meet and bond with other athletes, both from your own university and the other three D.C. universities involved," said Jones, who serves as communications coordinator for Grassroot Colonials. "It is great to see a `grassroots culture' starting to form at GW as more and more athletes realize the important but also fun role that TGP can play in their lives."

Women's basketball freshman Caira Washington said she was originally attracted to the program because of the number of student-athletes who were involved, but "to know how much of an effect I would be having on young kids' lives really got me to join the program."

"I love kids and teaching, as well as giving back," said women's basketball sophomore Alexis Chandler, who, like many of her teammates, was recruited to Grassroot Colonials by Jones. "The idea that I could have the opportunity to do all of these things combined with sports was ideal."

Women's basketball graduate student Brooke Wilson agreed. "I love working with kids, and as a college athlete, I feel as though we are in a great position to positively impact the lives of the youth. They really seem to look up to us," she said.

After undergoing extensive training to become Grassroot Coaches in which they themselves learned about HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as how to conduct lessons and incorporate information into games, the Colonials, along with student-athletes from Georgetown, Howard and Maryland, visited various middle schools across the district once a week to spend time with groups of students.

"We play games like `Find the Ball,' where we stand in a line and pass the ball labeled HIV/AIDS back and forth until someone calls out stop," women's basketball junior Chakecia Miller explained. "Then the kids have to try to guess who has the ball. It usually took three or four tries to guess the correct person. The point was to help them understand that HIV/AIDS can affect anyone and you can't tell if someone has it just by looking at them."

"The games that are incorporated with the lessons really make it more fun for the kids and they retain the information better and faster," said Washington.

But the students get more out of the program than just learning how to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS, Chandler said - they gain role models and big brother or sister figures.

"These kids love the involvement we have with them and they open up to ask us questions they might not be otherwise comfortable talking about," she said. "Because of the trust we have with each other, I believe we provide a safe outlet to ask questions that are prevalent in this age group of middle school kids."

"They love that we are student-athletes and challenge us to races and one-on-one games so they can show us their skills," Washington added. "We also connect with them through music and dances that are popular today."

The GW student-athletes have taken a lot from the program, as well.

"I have been able to really step outside of my comfort zones in the direction of personal development by exercising different types of leadership and activity," said Wilson. "As a school counseling/education major, putting myself in such settings has really helped me learn more about the school community and interacting with students, teachers, parents and other school personnel."

"I have learned countless leadership, managerial and non-profit organizational skills while working with The Grassroot Project," said Wallis. "However, I think the most lasting impact that Grassroots has had on me are the relationships I've built - both with other student-athletes from different teams and with middle school students who look up to these student-athletes that take the time to develop relationships with them."

Chandler, who hopes to become a head coach in the program, has continued to visit her school and interact with the students over winter break, and she plans to attend outside events such as basketball games in which several of her students will be participating.

"These are amazing kids who have the same aspirations and goals that I had at their age," she said. "I feel our encounters encourage them that they can be successful, and they make me want to further myself in order to set a good example for them so they can reach their goals."