Worlds United

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By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What happens when 11 Washington area high school girls, the picture of health and privilege, travel 8,000 miles to South Africa to teach soccer to girls their own age, all of whom know the downward drag of poverty and many of whom will be infected with AIDS or are living with someone who is?

What happens when they sit around a fire and talk about self-image and sexuality with girls more open to those conversations than they are? Or when they have to forgo such everyday luxuries as Life cereal, artichokes and dark chocolate for yams, rice and beans?

We're about to find out -- online and in this newspaper -- over the next two weeks.

The D.C. Blast, an elite soccer team of girls from the District and Maryland, landed in South Africa yesterday to teach soccer to local girls and learn about HIV/AIDs with them. It's not unusual for young athletes to travel abroad in the summer, but the township in Port Elizabeth where these young women will stay is not exactly the 7th arrondissement of Paris.

As departure day approached and they gathered for their first orientation, the girls voiced worries that many teenage girls might have when leaving the comforts and routine of home. They didn't yet have a language for coping with death, so they talked about things that came more easily, such as friendship.

Rachel Starnes, a 16-year-old midfielder, practically shrieked when Coach Ian Oliver said no to laptops, hair dryers, hair straighteners, iPods or, worst of all, cellphones. "But my girlfriend is having her birthday while we're over there! I have to talk to her on her birthday! She'll get mad at me if I don't!" Rachel wailed.

Another girl wanted to know exactly how high the cable car would take them up Cape Town's Table Mountain. (Answer: about 3,600 feet.) Still another asked: Was it true that a baboon might charge their jeep when they took a short safari? (Answer: Yes. That's why the guard in their jeep would carry a gun.)

Behind such questions loomed larger ones less easily expressed. World Cup soccer champion Tiffany Roberts, one of three chaperons in addition to Oliver, sensed this and injected some perspective. "You think you can't live without your phone," she told the group, "but you're going to see how happy these girls will be just having one soccer ball for 200 people."

The idea for the trip originated with the 31-year-old Oliver, who coordinates sports-based programs for the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development in Washington.

Team members asked him a year ago about the possibility of going overseas. He immediately suggested they do something with Grassroots Soccer, a U.S.-based charitable organization that brings kids together in Africa and teaches them life skills aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS.

The American girls reacted enthusiastically, evidence of an ongoing increase in the number of students in high school and college going on vacations to do good. The team raised $60,000 through donations, an art auction and an umbrella sale, enough to pay the girls' expenses and leave behind $10,000 to keep a street soccer program going in Port Elizabeth after they leave.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, they played regular games in their division, establishing themselves as a strong local team by ending in third place with four wins, two losses and three ties. In addition, they trained with Roberts and another chaperon, Jessica Cates-Bristol, also a top soccer player. They learned that as a rule, girls in Africa play netball, a tamer version of basketball, instead of soccer, which is considered a boys' sport. Since several of the local girls think nothing of tackling opponents, even plowing through them, they found this odd.

"I hope we can leave behind the knowledge of how empowering soccer can be," said Joanna Meyer-Glitzenstein, 16, a tough center/midfielder, and one of several girls interviewed in their homes before leaving.

Oliver brought in experts to talk about the history and culture of South Africa, poverty and AIDS. The girls learned that in a nation of approximately 45 million people, more than 5 million are infected with the AIDS virus, one of the highest rates in the world. South African kids of their age have almost a 50 percent chance of acquiring the virus in their lifetime. In Washington, young men are most affected by the virus; in South Africa, it's young women, like them.

They were shocked to learn that more than half of girls their age will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and that sexist myths abound, including this one: If you're an HIV-positive man, you can be cured by having sex with a virgin.

It was a relief sometimes to have other things to chat about among themselves, such as getting around the coach's rules. One girl told another that she was going to sneak a hair straightener into her suitcase and promised that her friend could share it. Rachel managed to extract a promise from Oliver that she could use his cellphone to call her girlfriend.

What they could not get around was their apprehension about how they would react in such a different place. Their world was about to get a whole lot bigger, and their picture of themselves as strong, worldly girls might change.

"When someone reaches toward me, will I step back?" asked Molly Brune, a 16-year-old forward. "I hope not."

Natalie Hensley, 16 and a forward/midfielder, worried that the South African girls would be wary of her and her teammates. "I know the stereotypes of Americans," she said, "that we're fat, stupid and obnoxious."

The fact that they would be riding around in a van, pulling a trailer with all kinds of sports gear, would not exactly enhance their image, said Clare Greenberg, 16 and also a forward/midfielder.

"We are going to stick out a lot," she said. "You know, here are all these American girls with so much stuff. I don't want them thinking we're rich. Maybe we are, but I don't want them thinking we are."

The youngest of the group, 14-year-old Kenia Rubio, seemed the most confident. Perhaps that's because she's far from rich, she said in an interview at a restaurant accompanied by Oliver.

She lives with a brother, a sister and her mother, who grew up in El Salvador and cleans office buildings for a living.

"I can listen to the South African girls' problems and tell them about mine," she said.

She turned to her coach. "How many girls will we reach?" she asked.

"About 150," Oliver responded.

"That's not enough," she said. ยท

Comments:steppl@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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