Soccer changing lives, one Whiz Kid at a time

By CHRIS ZIEMER

(Editor’s note: Chris Ziemer, Sonoma Academy athletic director and head girls soccer coach, is blogging for The Press Democrat at the World Cup in South Africa).

June 27, 2010

Durban, South Africa –

The real soccer heroes in South Africa…

Earlier this week, my wife Renee and I had the opportunity to visit Umlazi, a township on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, located southwest of Durban.  It was an amazing experience on many levels.

We were guests of Ollie Walsh, marketing director for the  WhizzKids United (WKU) organization, whose mission is “To deliver effective HIV prevention, care, treatment and support to the youth worldwide through the medium of football (soccer).”

According to the WKU website, founder Marcus McGilvray realized that kids learn and respond best when they are motivated and when the method of learning is appropriate, dynamic, goal-orientated and delivered in a language that kids speak and understand.  Enter WhizzKids United which recognizes that football is the perfect tool with which to teach as it speaks a universal language which appeals to all children, both boys and girls, and in doing so transcends culture and background.

They have an informative website, which outlines many of their goals, programs, partners and successes, but being on the ground at one of their events gave a much better appreciation for who they are working with and the great work they are doing.

We traveled only 45 minutes from Durban to the township of Umlazi, but it felt like a world away from the Durban World Cup stadium, the world class beaches and posh hotels that most World Cup visitors will experience.  Along they way, we passed rundown houses, families including small children, walking the streets barefooted, as well as signs of growth and progress.  When I mentioned to other South Africans that we had visited Umlazi, they all shrugged trying to understand why we would visit that area, feeling it was not only unsafe but had little to offer us on our journey.  How wrong they were…

The attraction in Umlazi was a camp being run by WKU, with approximately 40-50 South African children.  The camp was being run in partnership with Grassroots Soccer,  Castrol, and Sony provided tickets for the participants to attend the Nigeria vs. South Korea game.  The WKU staff was a diverse group, paid and volunteer, local as well as others from around the world.

I’ve worked a few hundred soccer camps in the U.S., but when we arrived, it was immediately apparent this camp would be different than anything I had experienced before.

We arrived at the dirt field, which was fairly level in most parts, and surrounded by a dirt track, which wasn’t quite as even.  There was a goal anchored on each side of the field and it was contained by sloping hills on two sides and brick steps which served as seating on another.  The area was packed, with groups of WKU players spread out as well as a group of approximately 30 local players practicing on half of the field.

Castrol provided the WKU participants with a uniform, some red and some green.  The outfit included shorts a uniform shirt and a hat.  Most were dressed in the camp uniform.

After taking a moment to digest the field set-up, a few things caught my eye quickly.  The field areas which they were using were extremely uneven, probably such that it would have been deemed unsafe in the U.S.  Many of the kids didn’t have shoes, so each group had a mix of kids who were barefooted, wearing cleats, only one shoe, or even slippers.  As I interacted with other groups, I saw this was the norm.

I was also trying to get a feel for what the WKU staff were teaching, and quickly noticed that their Life Skills trainers were using the game of soccer and sample exercises to draw analogies between soccer and life., especially as it related to choices they make, specific to HIV.   One of the staff, Paul, was a former professional player in South Africa who also played at the University of Richmond in the U.S.  Another was a volunteer from Germany, Daniel, who was using the experience as part of his education in Sports Management.

While taking all of this in, I was mainly drawn to the kids in the program.  Here they were, playing barefoot on dirt fields, but with smiles on their faces and a joyful approach which was infectious.  One small 13-year-old boy, nicknamed Mabhunu, caught my eye, mainly because of his smile, left foot and big personality.  We spoke, we juggled and joked around.  I nicknamed him “Tshabalala” after the South African player who scored the opening goal at the World Cup.  I loved saying it and he loved hearing it so it was a perfect match.  He plays for a club team called Toronto, loves soccer, and walked over 20 minutes each way each day to get to camp.  His favorite part of the camp was “playing balls” and going to the stadium, which he described as beautiful.  One of their assignments was to play journalist and do a newspaper and their topic was food.  He and his partner, Ntusu, a softspoken 13-year-old girl, asked for my help.  They had a list of foods and wanted help drawing them, so I gave them some ideas with my limited artistic skills.

The highlight of the day for me was circling up with a few of the kids and juggling.  It was easy to see that they had spent countless hours with the ball and we were able to keep the ball in the air effortlessly.

All in all, it was a great chance to see first-hand the great work that WhizzKids United is doing, and my mind immediately thought of how I could return to help.  There is so much we take for granted in the U.S. that could make a huge difference.  Balls, cleats, uniforms – whether new or used – would go a long way here.  More importantly for me, it was great to get to the heart of the matter and see these wonderful South African children learning more about life and HIV, with soccer as the vehicle. 

It didn’t matter that these kids weren’t delivered in SUVs by their parents.  None of them arrived with a Gatorade or Toy Story fruit snack.  Nobody cared whether they had the Ronaldo uniform or the Beckham cleats.  Their parents weren’t sitting on the sideline with a shade canopy, ice chest and cell phone.  When their teams play, I’m assuming they don’t roll out a portable bench in team colors, or fly the team flag. 

This was soccer stripped to it’s most basic level and although there were business interests (charitable) at stake for some of the organizations involved, the true story of the day was WhizzKids United, which is doing amazing work, one child at a time.  I found them to be an organized, welcoming and professional organization, without the trappings of grandeur that sometimes saddles a charity.  I was encouraged to hear the WKU founder lives and breathes what he started, not only working with WKU on a daily basis but housing volunteers from around the world at his home.

If you are reading this blog, I assume you are taking some joy from the World Cup in South Africa.  If you have the finances to make a difference (anything helps), I would invite you to join me in returning some joy to South Africa, and you can feel good about supporting WhizzKids United, a wonderful organization which is doing great work.

To find out more information or to donate visit –

http://www.whizzkidsunited.org/