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D.C. nonprofit trains college athletes to teach local youth about health and HIV prevention

The Grassroot Project is a nonprofit that sends student-athletes to schools in the Washington, D.C., area, where they impart lessons about health and HIV prevention to local students. Amanda Damelio photo

Nearly a decade ago, a little girl tugged Tyler Spencer into the hall of her Washington, D.C., middle school. In a city where roughly 1 in 20 of the city’s residents were living with HIV, Spencer was there dispensing education to the girl and her peers about how to prevent the disease. She remained quiet during the initial sessions, but after a few weeks of instruction, she finally beckoned Spencer into that hallway. There, she told him her aunt had died of AIDS and that her sister was HIV positive.

She told Spencer that until the arrival of his nonprofit, the Grassroot Project, she never knew she could avoid the same fate. “That was a long time ago,” Spencer says, “but it still keeps me motivated.”

Today, Spencer still helms what started as a small organization in 2009 and has since impacted thousands of young lives. The Grassroot Project arms college athletes with the knowledge and skills they need to teach local youth about HIV prevention, nutrition and physical health education. In the decade since, the program has reached 50 schools and more than 5,000 teens in the area. After so much success in the nation’s capital, Spencer and his team are looking to expand to a new market in need of the same type of education.

“I just got this idea that sports could be a really powerful tool to address an issue that made a lot of people quiet,” he says.

While the program has impacted many young lives — one Georgetown track and field athlete even eventually became the legal guardian of a girl she met through Grassroot — the HIV-positive rate in Washington, D.C., still hovers at nearly 3 percent. There is more work to do there and, Spencer hopes, in new cities nationwide. He and his staff, several of whom are former college athletes, are working with a consulting firm to identify new markets that stand to benefit most from the sort of education Grassroot provides.

A new city hasn’t yet been selected, but ensuring the area has enough student-athletes to draw from and communities in dire need of health education will be paramount because Grassroot is designed to help student-athletes as much as it does the young children who receive the health education. Why? When Spencer didn’t make Virginia’s highly ranked tennis team as a freshman in 2004, he understood he needed to devote himself to new ambitions.

Spencer became the manager of the team but began using his summers to explore the world as part of the process of shedding his long-standing identity as an athlete. Studying abroad in South Africa, he encountered people who were HIV-positive and struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis. The disease’s stigma, he realized, left them powerless and paralyzed. Every summer in college, Spencer traveled back to South Africa, where he trained professional soccer players to deliver HIV-prevention education to children.

Spencer built the program to help provide a new avenue for athletes who, like him, needed to find new paths as their athletics careers wound down. After a decade, more than 1,000 student-athletes from six local universities have taken part in the program.

Spencer understands that athletes value structure, so he and his staff frame the endeavor as a commitment, not unlike the ones the student-athletes have made to their college teams. The athletes aren’t permitted to drop in and out of the program as they please. They must commit to eight weeks of working with the same group of teenagers so that bonds form and lessons take root.

“We say, just like in a sport, ‘If you skip three practices in a week, you’re going to get cut from the team,’ ” Spencer says. “That pitch has been very successful.”

If all goes according to plan, student-athletes in a new city will be hearing that same pitch soon.

More Acts of Kindness

Braving the cold for a cause: It’s a good thing St. Cloud State’s women’s hockey team is accustomed to the cold. Though winter weather set in early in St. Cloud, Minnesota, this year, the local Habitat for Humanity continued its building projects. In November, members of the Huskies women’s hockey team braved those frigid temperatures to lend some time — and elbow grease — to the initiative. The area’s field of volunteers willing to work outside tends to dwindle when winter hits, so the team’s willingness to step off the ice and onto the snow proved invaluable.

Friendly competition: The Colby men’s and women’s lacrosse teams raised nearly $15,000 for the 10th annual Dempsey Challenge, a fundraising event held every year in Lewiston, Maine, that drums up support for families affected by cancer. Why Lewiston? It’s the home of actor Patrick Dempsey, whose foundation organizes the event. Dempsey posed for a photo with the Colby teams, which competed with Bates and Bowdoin to raise the most money for the cause.

Miami’s free food truck: Miami (Florida) student-athletes recently began donating time to an initiative that delivers food to those who need it. Second Spoon, a nonprofit food truck, collects food from restaurants that would have gone to waste and distributes it throughout the Miami area. It’s the brainchild of Vanderbilt quarterback Mo Hasan, with an assist from Hurricanes running back Robert Burns, who was Hasan’s high school teammate in Miami. Hasan raised about $15,000 to buy and convert a FedEx truck to make the important deliveries. 

Solidarity in the storm: Hurricane Florence battered the North Carolina coast in September, inflicting significant damage on UNC Pembroke. The school was forced to close its doors for two weeks after the storm. Wingate, located 80 miles to the west, escaped the worst and sprang to action to help its neighbor. The school raised more than $6,000, and Brandon Hunt, a Wingate graduate and the football equipment manager, presented the check to UNC Pembroke Athletics Director Dick Christy when the two football teams squared off in October.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.