In a classroom at Walker Jones Educational Center, four Howard track athletes, a George Washington soccer player and a former all-American sprinter from Georgetown push tiny desks and chairs against the walls to create a playground for the afternoon’s game.
It’s called HIV Attacks!
And it starts with 12-year-old Natia Bland, who has volunteered to play the Human, standing in the center of a circle surrounded by nine middle-school classmates who pick whatever Germ or Disease they want to be.
“I’m Pneumonia!” one blurts out.
“I’m the Chicken Pox!” says another.
“I’m Swine Flu!”
Amid riotous giggles, a game of dodgeball begins, with Germs and Diseases trying to hit the Human with a soccer ball.
Their instructor, former Big East champion sprinter Deidra Sanders, aided by the varsity athlete volunteers, counts the hits (only under-handed throws aimed below the waist allowed) before time expires.
Poor Natia gets tagged 20 times. But that’s only Round One of a game designed to teach what HIV is, what it does to the body and how treatment works — lessons that unfold in subsequent rounds in which the characters of Immune System, HIV and ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) step inside the circle to alternately defend, attack and protect the Human.
It’s part of curriculum crafted by Tyler Spencer, a former rower at Virginia, who launched the nonprofit Grassroot Project in 2009, inspired by his experience in Africa as a volunteer with Grassroots Soccer, which used professional soccer players to raise awareness and break the stigma of AIDS and HIV.
Back stateside, Spencer volunteered with MetroTeen Aids as a college senior and was stunned to learn that one in 20 Washington residents has HIV — a higher incidence than in many African nations. So he decided to try to replicate for Washington youngsters the curriculum he had witnessed first-hand in sub-Saharan Africa.
Instead of enlisting school nurses or public-health advocates as instructors, Spencer drafted local college athletes to lead the games designed to drive home key messages about leading healthy lifestyles, avoiding risks and handling peer pressure. As he envisioned it, a Washington-based Grassroot Project would benefit not only middle-school students but also college athletes.
“A lot of Division I athletes go through school completely insulated by their teams,” Spencer said in a telephone interview from England, where he’s pursuing a doctorate in public health as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. “They don’t leave campus; they don’t have time to get out and experience anything outside school and their sport. Their sport is their career in college, but only one or two percent go pro. This is a great way to get college athletes to do something related to what they do in sports but tied to something better.”
Back at Walker Jones in northwest Washington, it’s the last day of a semester-long series of sessions led by Grassroot volunteers. Fittingly, it begins with a lightning round of catch, in which students must blurt out something they’ve learned each time a classmate hits them with a bullet pass.
“You can’t tell anybody has HIV just by looking at them!” one boy says upon catching the soccer ball.
“One way not to have HIV is don’t have sex,” says another.
“That’s right!” Sanders, 23 , who manages the Grassroot Project, chimes in approvingly. “Abstinence!”
“I learned you can go to a clinic if you have HIV,” a girl says.
“And what do you get?” Sanders probes.
“Tested!” the girl replies.
“I learned that the more you get older, the more pressure you get to have sex.”
No child seems squeamish about the subject matter. And they seem at ease with — though respectful of — Sanders and the other athletes, who serve as coaches rather than instructors. Through word and deed, the athletes make clear that they were in middle school, too, not long ago. And as varsity athletes, they talk with authority about the importance of leading healthy lives, which means working out, eating right and knowing the risks of drugs, alcohol and poor decisions about sex.
Back to HIV Attacks!, which has moved into Round Two.
That’s when a boy named Ron-Ron, playing the Immune System, joins the Human in the circle, charged with defending her against further soccer-ball attacks from Germs and Diseases. Ron-Ron races around madly, his back to Natia, fending off incoming balls like Hope Solo defending the U.S. Soccer team’s goal in the World Cup. With Immune System in the game, the Human gets hit just eight times, rather than 20 without him.
Round Three introduces HIV, played by a boy who enters the circle and holds Immune System’s arms behind his back. With Immune System compromised, the Human gets hit 13 times. The game ends with ARV (anti-retro virals) joining the circle to hold HIV’s arms back. The Human fares better.
“At first, I thought it was just going to be dumb,” 12-year-old Natia says later about the Grassroot Project. “But I went to one class, and I kept going and going because I thought it was interesting. Kids like to play games. They don’t like to keep reading and hearing all these facts. And the games help us get [the lesson] better.”
Her classmate Tu’ziah Hall, 14, likes the class so much she has decided to become a pediatrician.
“Anybody can have HIV,” she explains. “You shouldn’t discriminate against people who have HIV and AIDS. It’s not something they want to have.”
While it’s unclear whether the Grassroot Project will help reduce Washington’s high rate of HIV, this semester it’s making middle-schoolers in 13 of the city’s public and charter schools more aware of its risks and challenges. And in doing so, it’s giving more than 270 volunteer college athletes a new perspective on their power away from the playing field.
“When I was growing up, a lot of people who came to our school and tried to help us with programs, we kind of blew ’em off and didn’t pay them much attention,” said Damion Haynes, a freshman sprinter at Howard. “These kids, they might not look like the brightest kids in the bunch, but if you engage them, you’ll see that they’re very intelligent. They can articulate what we’re telling them. It’s shocking to see that they’re really taking this to heart.”