- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Anna Phillips says sports gave her the confidence to try to achieve her academic and life goals. Growing up in San Diego, she participated in softball, basketball and track and was the only girl on her high school’s boy’s wrestling team. Encouraged by her family, she focused on attending George Washington University and getting a Fulbright Scholarship for the 2008-09 school year.

Ms. Phillips, 23, is hoping soccer will help change the lives of girls and women in Uganda. In 2006, while an undergraduate volunteer for Global Youth Partnership for Africa, she started the program Girls Kick It! More than 300 participants, ages 9 to 26, have been through the program since then, she said.

“Many of these women have only known strife,” she said.

Many of the girls and women have limited educational opportunities. Some have been abducted and abused by the rebel army, been married off at a young age or have suffered the after-effects of war, such as starvation and displacement to refugee camps.

“The girls practice three to five days a week and have life-skills training with a social worker,” Ms. Phillips said. “They talk about preventing HIV and AIDS, teamwork and self-respect. These are basic traits we in American society take for granted.”

The program is free, but Girls Kick It! asks that parents support the participants’ commitment.

“We have found when girls have a commitment at an early age, it is less likely they will marry young or get pregnant or contract HIV,” Ms. Phillips said.

To boost that support, Girls Kick It! staff members meet with village elders to get their blessing, and the nonprofit has hired a community member to serve as a coach. Though some women face pressure from their husbands and fathers to quit the program when it calls for them to travel to twice-yearly tournaments, Ms. Phillips said the games generally are community events with high participation.

The story of former team captain Sarah Angwech illustrates what Girls Kick It! is trying to do. Ms. Angwech, who is in her mid-20s, lost her parents — one to AIDS and one to rebel activity — when she was young. She struggled in the public school system, often missing classes because it was too dangerous to go to school. Ms. Angwech was able to turn her life around with help from Girls Kick It! She recently earned a scholarship and has dreams of becoming a physician, Ms. Phillips said.

Girls Kick It! (called Anyira Gweyo! in the Luo language) operates programs in Gulu, Uganda, and at a refugee camp in Paicho, Uganda. Jeremy Goldberg, founder of Global Youth Partnership for Africa (https://gypafrica.com), the District-based nonprofit that partners with Ms. Phillips’ organization, said Girls Kick It! is a perfect fit with GYPA’s mission of equipping future educators, leaders and citizens in Africa with the skills, tools and resources necessary to promote sustainable social change.

“I think, overall, the power of sports as a tool for personal development is critical,” he said. “Oftentimes in Africa, we find that sports is intuitive. All you need is a ball, and you can play. If you are able to organize programming around the game itself, you’ll see change. Individuals will step up to be part of a team and a community.”

Ms. Phillips earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from GWU. She spent last year in Uganda on a Fulbright scholarship researching the use of gender quotas in Ugandan government. She is back at the university as a Presidential Administrative Fellow and is working toward a master’s degree in international development studies.

She initially spent nine months in Uganda getting Girls Kick It! in place and has been there for extended stints since. However, the goal of the program is to have local mentors and coaches running the program.

The program operates on an annual budget of less than $10,000 and is a true grass-roots initiative in that it was built with small amounts of seed money. Ms. Phillips’ first fundraising pushes were “writing a letter to everyone I know, asking for $10,” including friends from her synagogue, Temple Micah in the Northwest Washington, and to her high school in San Diego.

Mr. Goldberg said women in Uganda can learn from Ms. Phillips as a program leader and a person.

“The work Anna is doing and her track record of accomplishment have a lot to say about her role as a mentor,” he said. “She is a positive example for women in Uganda. Having positive role models is an important asset to the programming.”

• Karen Goldberg Goff can be reached at kgoff@washingtontimes.com.

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