Fighting AIDS Through Soccer

(Red), Marketers Go to South Africa to Hold Soccer Camp With a Twist

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It's an exciting time in South Africa right now. The World Cup's presence here this year provides a unique opportunity to highlight the beauty and energy of this amazing country, but it's also an opportunity to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic that continues to have a devastating effect not only on South Africa but on the continent as well.

(RED) Global CMO Jenifer Willig with members of BLJ JKS and HHP at the (RED)/Grassroot Soccer Holidays Skillz program in Khayaletisha, South Africa.
(RED) Global CMO Jenifer Willig with members of BLJ JKS and HHP at the (RED)/Grassroot Soccer Holidays Skillz program in Khayaletisha, South Africa. Credit: Jonx Pillemer/The Persuaders
To put this into perspective, during the month of World Cup matches, 23,000 people will die from complications of AIDS in South Africa alone. Nearly 4,000 people die every day across this continent from this disease. But while these numbers are staggering, progress is being made.

I've spent this past week in Khayaletisha, a large township just outside Cape Town seeing where this progress is happening. While I've been here, I've had a chance to experience a very different side of the World Cup from the one we're seeing on TV. It wasn't games held in front of thousands of screaming fans in big stadiums. It was games played on a field with kids whose passion for soccer surpasses all other things.

(RED) and our partners Bugaboo, Beats by Dr. Dre and Converse, teamed with an organization called Grassroot Soccer and its Skillz Holiday Program. This four-week holiday camp, held during the World Cup, is made up of more than 52 weeklong soccer and education programs across South Africa. Each of these camps accommodates 100 children between the ages of 12 and 16. Through 34 hours of each camp, the students who take part in the program are provided with intensive training in soccer and also receive HIV prevention and life-skills education.

Grassroot Soccer uses the fundamentals of soccer, such as team play and knowing your next move, to bring these kids together and teach them about life-saving techniques in the fight against HIV. At the end of every week, each child will graduate from the program having learned vital skills, and they and their families will have the opportunity to receive voluntary HIV testing. Their passion for soccer is the catalyst to helping turn the tide against the spread of HIV.

The site the center is built on used to be what is called a "hot zone." There were crime and drugs that made this field very unsafe. Today, it is a beautiful community center where kids can come to laugh, dance, learn and play soccer. Being able to hear these children's stories and have them share their hopes for the future was a wonderful gift for me personally. And, through organizations such as Grassroot Soccer and the impact of (RED) partners and the Global Fund in South Africa, they are receiving much in return: knowledge of the facts, the confidence to make the right decisions and the means to stay healthy regardless of their HIV status.

This experience reminds me why it's so important that, even in a time of great national celebration such as the World Cup, we seize the occasion as not just an opportunity to raise HIV/AIDS awareness but as an opportunity to take action. By including HIV education as part of a soccer clinic, we can help increase the sense that it's not something young people should feel afraid of discussing. A healthy, fun atmosphere such as the one that the Skillz Holiday Program is providing offers the perfect opportunity to break down cultural biases and misconceptions, and help kids understand that knowledge is power.

We're meeting the kids on their own turf here. They're having a good time, acquiring an understanding that may make the difference between life and death for entire families and helping create a generation that is better-equipped to beat this disease.

To learn more about collaboration between (RED) and Grassroots Soccer, visit

Jenifer Willig is the global chief marketing officer of (RED), a business model designed to engage the private sector, its marketing abilities and funds in the fight against AIDS in Africa.
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