In the past few weeks, we have seen photos and video footage of the poverty and hunger that has besieged Haiti for decades. While on a recent medical mission to hurricane-ravaged Haiti, I came across one of the most inspiring and unexpected sports stories I’ve ever witnessed.
Haiti, located only ninety miles off the coast of Florida, is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Although slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, Haiti has a population of seven million.
The Haitian Health Foundation (HHF), of Norwich, Conn., has been caring for the poor of Haiti since 1982. Dedicated workers have built schools, medical clinics, and housing for the people of Jeremie, Haiti, and 105 surrounding villages.
HHF’s founder, local orthodontist Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, leads physicians, dentists, and willing volunteers from all walks of life to work with the people of Haiti four times a year for one week. “Over 90 percent of volunteers return to spend additional weeks among the poor,” Lowney said.
These pilgrimages are designed to benefit the poor but it is often the volunteers who find themselves invigorated both physically and spiritually.
While evaluating a young girl in an HHF clinic, I was surprised to discover that she was accompanied by her soccer coach. I couldn’t believe that in this remote area of a third world country, with people struggling simply to exist, women’s soccer had been organized and was thriving.
Ordinarily, women do not play soccer in Haiti; it is considered a “male” sport. Haitian girls, especially those in outlying villages, grow up believing that playing games like soccer will deform their reproductive organs and prohibit them from bearing children.
In 2006, HHF started a soccer league for girls between the ages of 13 to 19. Before being allowed to compete, they must complete a one-week course on responsible sexuality. At that time, they receive a uniform and shoes. The course is designed to empower women through knowledge. Classes consist of topics like reproductive anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, and a woman’s rights under Haitian law. These young girls also learn that obtaining a firm educational base will lead to increased opportunities.
This year, almost 1,300 girls were educated in the program and 830 played in the league. Callie Kaplan, a young woman from Chicago, has served as the soccer program’s director for the past year. Kaplan played varsity soccer at Colgate University in New York. “Participation in the HHF soccer program has become a source of pride for the girls and their parents,” Kaplan said. Many of the girls’ teams train with the local boys’ teams.
On September 3rd, I attended the HHF soccer championship between the villages of Gobin and Fondrouge Dayere. The “field” was nothing like the plush, grassy surfaces we are accustomed to seeing here in the United States. Instead, it was an accumulation of rocks and shells. Scrapes, bruises, and bloodshed are commonly seen after a fall. Soccer balls wear out quickly and typical equipment like soccer shoes and protective shin guards are nowhere to be found.
Approximately 1,500 fans attended; many walked for hours from their villages to the city of Jeremie. There were no bleachers or chairs and many of the younger spectators climbed trees to get a better view. The team from Fondrouge Dayere won a hard-fought and exciting contest by a score of 2-1. From the standpoint of sheer entertainment, the cheering fans knew there were no losers.
When it comes to sports, much is taken for granted in the United States. It is comforting to know that women’s sports prevail despite extreme poverty. HHF has given young women an opportunity to learn about their bodies and the importance of fitness.
“The only way to curtail incidences of sexually transmitted disease and early pregnancy is through education,” Lowney said. “Often, this is best accomplished by linkage to athletics.” In Haiti, these sporting events have become a forum for athletes and spectators to communicate messages regarding responsible sexual practices through the use of banners and announcements.
I was amazed to find such a superb combination of health and sports in a third world country. This women’s soccer league serves as a beacon of hope for many young women living in despair.
Unfortunately, the HHF soccer program is losing its major grant support, potentially ending this worthwhile program. It costs only $1,000 to fund a team, including the most basic equipment and the educational component. While any donation will be gratefully accepted, I encourage any individual or business to join me in adopting a team. All donations should be sent to Haitian Health Foundation at 97 Sherman Street, Norwich, CT, 06360, or through its website at haitianhealthfoundation.org.