WASHINGTON — For most of this semester, Erin Boudreau, Liz Brighton and Sydney Fry have left college campuses in some of D.C.’s richest neighborhoods to come to the Washington School for Girls in Southeast.
They’re part of a group called The Grassroot Project.
This nonprofit organization brings more than a thousand college athletes here in D.C. and puts them inside gyms and classrooms with over 5,000 area students.
Using games and physical activity, the athletes go to D.C. schools to teach about healthy living, hoping the unique approach will resonate with kids.
Inside the gym at The Arc last week, Boudreau, Brighton, and Fry gathered a couple dozen sixth-grade girls and got them into a circle to play a game called “Juggling My Life.”
Using tennis balls with words like “school” and “family” and “friends” and other aspects of the typical sixth-grader’s life, the girls started bouncing the balls in a set pattern to each other.
And of course, things got more and more chaotic as more tennis balls started bouncing around the circle.
“And that was hard to juggle?” Boudreau, a senior public health major and soccer player getting ready to graduate from George Washington University, asked one of the girls.
The response was a simple: “Yeah,” was the point.
After a short discussion, they played again.
“And then we threw the soccer ball in,” said Boudreau. “Which was the sex ball.”
To which another girl replied, “That scared me!”
That’s when it got even more hectic.
After the soccer ball, more tennis balls with words like “pregnancy,” “STI” and “HIV” were added to the mix.
It was no accident that terms associated with sexual activity caused an even bigger commotion in the gym.
The tennis balls, metaphors for the obligations in the lives of these girls, scattered all over the place once sex was introduced. It was too much to juggle everything orderly.
“Sex is a choice,” Boudreau told the girls after the game was over. “Sex isn’t something you have to do,” she explained after the consequences of the game were conveyed into a real-life lesson.
“I think the kids retain a lot more than we think,” said Boudreau. “I think they’re picking up a lot and I hope that they’re internalizing the facts and factoring that into making their own health decisions.”
“Even when they seem a little disorderly, they always seem to know the key messages,” said Liz Brighton, who rows for the crew team at George Washington University and is also preparing for graduation.
“Even when you call on different people, a lot of them pick it up pretty quickly,” she said.
It’s not only by participation that the athletes are able to bond with the girls but it’s also in the way they communicate.
Rather than use her real name, Sydney Fry goes by “Squid,” for example.
The sixth-graders, who picked out their own nicknames, were addressed as “Joey the Kangaroo,” “AMC Movie Theater,” “LED Lights” and “Right Twix,” for example.
And there’s a method to that madness, too.
“We talk about a lot of serious things, so through the nicknames, we try to make it fun and a little less personal,” said Boudreau. “I think it just makes it easier to talk about subjects like sex.”
For Boudreau and Brighton, last Thursday was the final class they’d be a part of through the program. But it’d be a mistake to say they didn’t learn from the students they worked with this semester.
“The Grassroot Project made me decide to be a public health major,” said Boudreau. “It has completely changed the course of my academic career.”
She started with The Grassroot Project four years ago as a freshman.
“I didn’t really even know what public health was, and I didn’t even know that HIV was a huge problem in D.C. and in the United States,” said Boudreau, who grew up in Connecticut. “So it really changed my perspective on a lot of things.”
“Like she [Boudreau] said, I didn’t know what public health really meant,” echoed Brighton. “I’ve learned the importance of not assuming people know a lot of information and really meeting people where they are to teach them about things and not seeming critical or judgmental if they don’t know different things.”
Which doesn’t mean the kids she’s come across through Grassroot don’t know anything.
“Sometimes the kids really surprise me,” said Brighton.
Fry, a sophomore lacrosse player at American University who is winding down her first year with the program, said no one underestimate these kids.
“They’re in areas that are hardest hit by HIV and AIDS. It’s real to them, and we’re bringing it in and being able to talk about it, and it’s just super important,” said Fry. “There’s something special, and they’ve learned so much in eight weeks. I just hope they continue to take this on into high school and tell their other friends about it.”
As a neuroscience major, these sorts of public health programs aren’t going to have a direct correlation with what she plans to do later in life. But that doesn’t mean her involvement is going to wane.
Far from it, in fact.
“AU is kind of newer to Grassroot, but hopefully I’m going to get some teammates and other teams to come and join it. There’s only a handful from AU right now that’s participating.”
“Hopefully become a leader, eventually, and get that training,” said Fry. “I like it a lot.”