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Ethan Zohn: Grassroot Soccer

[ photo: Ethan Zohn ]

Grassroot Soccer

What would you do if you won a million dollars? Ethan Zohn '96, winner of "Survivor: Africa," took his mom on a vacation, bought each of his siblings a new car, and plunked the rest down to jumpstart Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization that is fighting the A.I.D.S. pandemic in Africa with an innovative tool: superstar African soccer players.

As per David Rosenberg, writing for Art and Understanding magazine: "Because the pandemic's spread is worsened by cultural myths and misinformation, Ethan and Tommy [Clark, cofounder] thought the best hope was creating a new generation of children who were educated about the disease. They also knew their approach had to go far beyond the traditional techniques of disseminating health material.

"Soccer is such a central part of daily life in Southern Africa, so they decided to tap its power with a unique proposal: What if they were to train superstar African athletes in the H.I.V./A.I.D.S. curriculum, and let them become the teachers for middle school children?"

In 2003, its first year of operation, Grassroot Soccer, trained 14 professional soccer players to be H.I.V./A.I.D.S.. educators, including Zimbabwe soccer hero Methembe Ndlovu, and conducted a series of two-week-long after-school programs in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, reaching over 1,500 young people. In an interview about the program with Campus Activities magazine, Zohn said, "In Africa, every kid wants to grow up and play professional soccer. It's the most popular sport, so you can imagine what happens when these heroes come into their classroom and teach these kids about A.I.D.S—These kids are jumping up and down, laughing and talking and touching these soccer players. These are their idols—They listen to it with open ears and they're more receptive to what they learn."

Zohn credits his father, Aaron, who died of colon cancer when he was 14, with teaching him that the greatest gift is "to make happiness real for others." He's been actively involved in many causes over the years, including fundraising for colon cancer research and diabetes research and outreach to inner-city kids through sports. He is now taking the Grassroot Soccer campaign to college campuses across the country, where his fame as "Survivor" winner is an instant draw. "I hear my father's voice," he told interviewer Rosenberg, "and I know that as long as I'm in the limelight, I need to do whatever I can to make the world a better place."


"Bend It Like Zohn," by David Rosenberg in Art and Understanding magazine, Dec. 1, 2003
"Campus Activities Interview with Ethan Zohn," Campus Activities magazine, Feb. 4, 2004