It’s a game, and it’s not a game.
Olga Dolinina wanted to start table-hockey programs for children who had been forced to flee constant shelling during Ukraine’s civil war. Dolinina had been working in Donetsk when Russian-backed separatists reduced entire suburbs of the city to rubble. Those who couldn’t escape, including families with disabled children, were reduced to hiding in the basements of factories and schools, searching for food during lulls in the gunfire.
Although actual hockey rinks had been destroyed, Dolinina thought table hockey could provide much-needed fun while helping refugee children make new friends and to cope with post-traumatic stress.
It was an inspiring idea, but Dolinina didn’t have a realistic game plan until she came to the United States through the Global Sports Mentoring Program, a U.S. State Department initiative operated by a small office at the University of Tennessee.
UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society was founded four years ago by Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, two down-to-earth former basketball players driven by their passion to use sports to empower women and, well, change the world.
They know it’s more than a game.
“It gives women a voice and allows them to exercise their rights and achieve things with their bodies and minds,” says Huffman.
Each year, the Global Sports Mentoring Program brings 17 women with leadership potential from around the world to the U.S. They work on a concrete plan to tackle one of the challenges faced by women or children in their home country. A mentor at a major company helps each woman develop concrete ways to make these “action plans” a reality. The women return to their communities so empowered that they create a ripple effect, improving the lives of thousands of women and children.
Within a year of finishing the program, Dolinina had founded a nonprofit to teach conflict resolution through hockey. She called her one-woman organization Break the Ice, a name that refers to helping young people communicate better as well as “breaking the ice in our hearts,” Dolinina says.
She had her own ice to melt; shortly before coming to the mentoring program, she lost her job when fighters looted and set fire to the hockey stadium where she worked. But Dolinina focused her energy on helping others recover. Break the Ice gave away hockey equipment and established table hockey programs for East Ukrainian refugee children whose homes, schools, and relatives had been destroyed by battles between the government and pro-Russian separatists.
Dolinina hopes to expand the program to reach children still living in the conflict area who have no access to normal activities. She says she’d also like to focus more on disabled refugee children, who “suffer twice.”
Dolinina says the Global Sports Mentoring Program changed her as a person and redirected her entire career path. “I was marketing for a hockey club, but I was just part of a big machine,” she says. “I learned to be strong as a leader and to take responsibility, not only to be happy, but to share that happiness and make the world better.” Now she works for the international relief organization Save the Children and says she can’t imagine her future without humanitarian work.
Dolinina isn’t alone in her success. Many of the 66 “emerging leaders” that have graduated from the program have had similar impacts. A report by the Center for the State Department shows that of the 50 women who participated in the program between 2012 and 2014, 86 percent have implemented their action plans.
The success rate is partly because the experience doesn’t end with the five-week program. “Your action plan is a forever thing,” says Huffman. “It’s a new lens on life to understand that you are an agent that can make change.”
Majidah Nantanda helps change the social landscape of Uganda by hopping off a dusty bus in the bush, toting a big bag of balls. In one village after another she uses soccer to teach girls to avoid HIV and AIDS. Cassia Damiani has drafted a federal law that would guarantee Brazilian girls access to sports as the country prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympics; Huffman says the bill has been through the first steps of Congressional approval, and the Brazilian president has promised to sign it if it passes. Caroline Maher, an Egyptian taekwondo champ who helps run a nonprofit dedicated to the inclusion of disabled people into mainstream society, just became, at age 29, the youngest senator ever appointed to the Egyptian parliament.
And it’s all the result of this little-known program in our own backyard that’s helping reshape the lives of hundreds—potentially thousands—of women around the world.
Keep Your Eye On The Ball
The difficulty of women in male-dominated cultures accomplishing such things can be tough for Americans to appreciate. Participants often come to the Global Sports Mentoring Program from cultures where sports, and even organized exercise for women, are considered somewhere on a scale between unseemly and morally wrong. Very conservative religious cultures may dictate that women’s bodies should be covered and they should not leave certain areas of their homes. Women who don’t follow the rules set by these patriarchal societies can risk being beaten, raped, or killed, in some cases by their own families. Even when families understand the benefit of sports, a girl’s physical activities may have to be so segregated that even her own father can never come cheer at her games. So women providing sports programs for girls may take great risks, or at the very least, fight uphill battles.
The mentoring program builds relationships based on challenges to which all women can relate. Huffman and Hillyer make powerful connections with the participants, who have come from 42 different countries, by sharing their own uphill battles.
Both women grew up in rural Southeastern towns, where each took the court as the only girl in leagues dominated by boys. (Hillyer, who is from Bald Knob, Ky., remembers having to switch from baseball to softball. She was ejected from her first softball game for playing by a baseball rule, leading her to accidentally break another girl’s nose.) Both made a play for a different future through basketball scholarships.
But they found that instead of offering a bigger world, college sports was just a new kind of small, insular mindset.
“We’re told we develop values through sport,” says Hillyer. “But those aren’t necessarily good values. What we are learning through sport is important.”
What Hillyer says she quickly learned during her two years at Virginia Tech is that college sport is not a game. And it’s not about a student’s development as a person.
It’s about numbers. Games won, games lost. Goals, assists, rebounds. Points in the paint. GPA to stay eligible.
“One number my coach used to control and manipulate players was game weights,” Hillyer says. She was weighed on game-day mornings, but her target weight changed every time. She was never told what it was in advance. The perfect weight last game—three days before, maybe—was three pounds too many today. If her weight wasn’t low enough, she didn’t play.
It was a game, but the rules kept changing. (Or there were no rules. Or it was not a game.)
Of course, there was another chance to be weighed later. Hillyer says, “I was determined not to let the coach win, so I would skip classes, wear garbage bags and exercise all day.”
And throw up. (You’ve probably heard of this kind of thing happening in track or in wrestling, where athletes are grouped by weight class—but in basketball?)
Often, she’d make weight and play the game, the one that happens on the court. But no matter how many points she scored, she could never win that other game the coach was playing, the one in her head.
Hillyer developed an eating disorder. She knew the Tech basketball program was ruining her, so after two years she transferred to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where she continued to play.
“But the demon didn’t leave me,” she says. She graduated with a degree in sports administration, bulimia, and no idea what she was going to do for a living, because she swore she was never going to play sports again.
Hillyer had learned the (destructive) power of sport.
On the rebound, she went home and took a year to heal. “I woke up one day and realized this wasn’t something basketball did to me,” says Hillyer. “It was something a person in a position of power did to me.”
Slowly, Hillyer realized she had power, too. She wanted to use it in a way that would build up, rather than tear down, women who love sports. It was 1993, and Hillyer was 21.
Sometimes when you’re rooting wildly for your team during a hotly contested match-up, there comes a moment out of time when you observe a play so pure and impossible that it transcends team or game. When you replay it in your head, it occurs in silent slow motion: nothing but the beauty of muscle and pirouette and swish. People talk about those moments for years afterward, just as women talk about Hillyer from corporate board rooms to dusty refugee camps.
This is the moment that sets her apart: At the lowest point in her life, she had the courage to dream up a job that didn’t exist, and then live it.
She tells this story to every woman in the Global Sports Mentoring Program. And then, remarkably, many of them do the same thing: make up a job that will improve people’s lives. Then live it.
Hillyer’s “action plan” was creating her own nonprofit called Sport for Peace, which would bring female college athletes to meet and play female athletes in other countries. It would help women abroad while also giving American women a chance to escape their team bubble and the college sports head game. Except for a brief trip to Mexico, Hillyer had never even left the United States.
“When I was in college, my world was so small,” Hillyer says. “So when I realized that I have power, and I’m not small, and the world is not small—I wanted to go big.”
She worked any job that would enable her to run Sport for Peace, too: substitute teacher, middle-school secretary, warehouse stock girl, referee, coach. A few times a year she took American female athletes to South America, Africa, or Asia.
That’s how she met Huffman. Huffman was a senior college basketball player at Eastern Kentucky University who went to China in 2005 on one of the Sport for Peace exchanges. When she left on the trip, Huffman had come to hate basketball. While she was there, she remembered what she loved about it. When she came back, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to invent the job of being assistant director of Sport for Peace.
The women became a team of two. Neither earned a salary. They paid their own expenses. All the money they raised, much of it cobbled together one trip at a time from individual donations, went directly to cover the athletes’ trips.
Huffman grew up in Poca, W. Va., the first in her family to attend college. Her childhood in sports paved the way. She remembers a transformative moment at 8 years old, when she climbed into the family car sobbing because the boys wouldn’t pass her the ball.
“My dad said to me, ‘In this life, you can’t just be as good as the boys. You have to be better. You have to make your own action.’”
This was hard when she felt so alone. “Where I grew up, I felt like such a weirdo that I wanted an education and I didn’t want to live in a trailer next to my parents and have babies,” she says. “Then I realized the cultural opposition women in other countries have to play sports. It made me question what I can do to make a difference.”
Halfway across the globe, Dima Alardah also grew up feeling like a weirdo. She was a pro badminton player in Jordan, a country that didn’t really know what the sport was; her Olympic dream was dashed because she couldn’t find a sponsor. Her parents pushed her to pursue a lucrative professional job, like her engineer father and sister. Alardah earned a degree in architecture but abandoned that career to establish the first badminton academy in the Middle East.
Alardah explains what it was like: “You can’t find a woman in your country with the same passion for sports as yours. And then you meet all these women [in the mentoring program] with the same passion, and you find, ‘Oh! I’m not alone in this world!’”
Alardah’s mentor was Sandy Cross, senior director of diversity and inclusion at the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. She helped Alardah develop a progression of classes for the badminton academy to keep players engaged as their skills increase. This can eventually enable her to offer coaching jobs to women she has trained.
Alardah says she also decided to develop a curriculum to teach badminton and life skills to young girls in parts of the country where conservative Muslim culture discourages them from leaving the house.
Although Alardah’s action plan focused on the academy, the mentorship program also led to a promotion that put her in a position to help even more people through her day job as a youth program officer at United Nations refugee camps. She currently works at Zaatari, the second-largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, where 80,000 displaced Syrians have lived in tents or pods in a windy desert for about four years.
“They are totally forgotten. They have nothing to do,” Alardah says. “Imagine you lost not only your country, your home, maybe your family, but also your future. It’s hard to convince them to even learn a new skill because they have lost hope.”
Part of the power of the mentoring program is that Hillyer and Huffman keep in touch with the emerging leaders on an almost daily basis and travel abroad to track the women’s projects. In December they visited Alardah’s refugee-camp sports programs, and Huffman interviewed a few of the women. “One woman told us the only thing they look forward to is coming to the sports class,” she says. “Women say, ‘We feel strong again. We can sleep at night.’ It spoke volumes about physical activity and socialization. … It was almost their salvation, whether you’re talking about literal death or the death of hope.”
Alardah says she has to teach the women that being physically active doesn’t make them less feminine.
They play soccer behind a chain-link fence covered in fabric so no men can watch. The women had been asking for a separate entrance to the activity center where their classes are held. But after Hillyer and Huffman conducted a soccer clinic at the camp, the women told Alardah they wanted to make a different change: exercising at the beginning of their vocational classes, even if men were present.
“For me, that was, ‘Wow. That confidence: That’s the power of sports,’” Alardah says.
Alardah, who has participated in other international exchange programs, says, “The difference between the doctors [Hillyer and Huffman] and others is the relationship they are building with us. And they are successful because they work very hard on themselves.” She added that during their recent visit, “It was an epic moment for me when my parents met the doctors, because the doctors are such role models. … When they came here to Jordan, it was a dream come true for me.”
Keep Your Eye On The Ball
Working for Sport for Peace was a dream come true for Huffman, but it didn’t pay any bills. After a mentor suggested graduate school (which Huffman had never heard of), she ended up in UT’s sports management doctoral program in 2006. When Hillyer provided a guest lecture, UT officials were so impressed they encouraged Hillyer to pursue her doctorate, too.
In the end, both earned doctorates in sport sociology while continuing to run the nonprofit. They approached UT about funding Sport for Peace as a research center.
It was not a slam dunk. College leaders sounded interested, but nothing happened. So Hillyer accepted a Georgetown University position, funded by the King of Jordan, to create a curriculum for sport and diplomacy. UT took notice, and when Huffman finished her doctorate in 2012, the university offered the two women jobs and the opportunity to create the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society.
Four days after its founding, the Center received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. State Department.
Earlier that year, the department had called for proposals to use sports to empower women and girls. Hillyer and Huffman applied and held their breath. “We’re nobodies,” Hillyer recalls thinking. “But this is what we do.” At that point, she had done it for 19 years, for free.
The Center for Sport, Peace and Society was chosen to run the entire State Department program, and it has since focused almost all its attentions on the grant. The State Department reopened the field to new proposals last year but selected the Center again.
The grant pays for two full-time and four part-time employees at the Center, in addition to contributing to the doctors’ salaries and funding all the program activities, Hillyer says.
Ann Cody, a State Department program officer, says the effort was part of a focus by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to increase opportunities for women. Cody says sport helps achieve that goal by providing a common ground for building trust, which opens doors to difficult conversations about broader challenges like child health and access to education.
During its first four years, the State Department program included three major components: professional athletes traveling abroad as envoys to run sports programs; a sports-visitor program bringing athletes from other countries to the United States; and the Global Sports Mentoring Program.
That component turned out to be so powerful that the State Department now wants to focus on it alone and expand it. Starting this year, Hillyer and Huffman will continue to work with female emerging leaders and also run a similar version for emerging leaders with disabilities.
The candidates for the program are nominated by U.S. embassies in 40 to 50 countries; then Hillyer and Huffman narrow the list. The women can have any professional background, but almost all are also athletes, often on their own time and against local custom.
After a 10-day primer course called “Strong Women. Better World” with Hillyer and Huffman, each emerging leader is paired with a high-profile company that provides mentors to help them develop and present their action plans. The companies put an array of experts on the case, from social media to financial gurus.
The emerging leaders say they forge relationships with each other and their mentors that last long after they return home, creating a network they often call a sisterhood. It is 3 a.m. in Brazil, 9 a.m. in Iran, and 1 p.m. in China, but they are still passing the ball—texting and using social media to offer each other support and advice.
Majidah Nantanda says having a mentor who was a strong woman and former pro athlete made her think, “If she can do it, why not me?” She learned from the program how to take advantage of networks and partnerships with other organizations that have similar goals. Nantanda coaches the Ugandan national women’s soccer team, but since participating in the mentorship program, she has also coached more than 800 girls across the backcountry in the rudiments of the game.
“The target is to reach girls who don’t have the opportunity to play—who don’t know they have the right to play,” she says. She is slipping in lessons about HIV as they learn passing and blocking. “Most women and young girls are victims of the disease because they have no power in society,” says Nantanda, who says she still emails her mentor for advice.
The mentors are not paired with emerging leaders based on their sport or job. The collaboration is not meant to work like an internship. Mentors are women at major companies that can put their human resource network at the disposal of the visiting women, and who can teach techniques that will help with any sport.
Dolinina has maintained a close relationship with her mentor, Susan Cohig, senior vice president for business affairs with the National Hockey League. Cohig says the mentoring program is a good fit for the NHL because 30 percent of its players come from outside the U.S., and it has expertise not only in running a league but in marketing the sport. The NHL has participated in the mentoring program for three years, most recently with twin mountain climbers from India who want to use the sport to boost both girls’ confidence and India’s adventure-tourism industry.
“Sometimes the notion of professional sports can seem like quite a luxury, but the business we’re in affords us the opportunity to have a significant impact,” Cohig says. “We’re a men’s sport, so if we can look for ways to expand that perspective, we absolutely will do it.”
Shortly before Dolinina came to the United States, civil war broke out in her country. Cohig says the NHL wanted to provide extra support and be ready to turn on a dime if conditions in Ukraine worsened. The NHL helped pay for equipment for Dolinina’s hockey programs, and several years later, a group of Dolinina’s youth hockey players came to visit and see a game.
“It was great because it was coming around full circle to have the work that Olga was doing come to life, and have her kids come to the U.S. and meet many of the same people,” Cohig says.
The PGA has also participated in the mentorship program for three years, says Cross, the PGA official who mentored Alardah. “It’s been an unbelievable experience for me,” Cross says. “When I look back on my career at the PGA this will absolutely be one of the highlights.”
She says the visiting women marvel at the collaboration among men and women at PGA. “Often in these other countries women aren’t at the table. They don’t have a voice. They aren’t involved in the decision making,” Cross says.
“I came away from these experiences with such a greater understanding of what life is like for other young women around the globe who are career-minded and do have high aspirations, but they face unbelievable challenges on the ground that we don’t face in this country.”
Cross also mentored Hayam Essam, who left her job as a civil engineer to found Girl Power, which uses basketball to empower underpriveledged girls in Cairo. PGA helped Essam develop a curriculum for 9- to 11-year-olds that included emotional and physical development as well as the game.
But perhaps more importantly, PGA officials spent a lot of time brainstorming ways to sell Essam’s program to families in a society where many women are taught that moving their bodies is a shameful enticement to men, as Hillyer put it. Essam’s PGA mentors asked questions like: Who needs to buy into this proposition? Do you need to engage influencers in the community? What are the selling points for moms? For dads?
Huffman says that, in very patriarchal societies, fathers often initially oppose sports programs for girls. But after they get going, sports become a way for girls to connect with their dads in a culture that doesn’t provide many of those opportunities. Dads discover they really enjoy having a relationship with their daughter.
An example is a program called “Daddy & Me” founded by Fatima Saleem, a former journalist in Pakistan. It sponsors friendly soccer scrimmages between girls and their dads. The first time, Hillyer says, not a single person showed up for the half-day event. Hearts sinking, Saleem and her team waited around. A few people trickled in an hour late. Others passed by and saw what was happening. By the end of the half-day, 100 people had joined. The ripples spread outward.
The Home Court
Hillyer sometimes wonders if she started backward 23 years ago by directing her peace-building effort at the international level. Today, she and Huffman would like to walk it back to the U.S. and the local community.
Although the Center staff is too small to do much more than run the State Department program, Hillyer and Huffman have found ways to bring the world to UT students and local residents. After finishing her doctorate, Hillyer was offered the chance to develop a service learning course as an adjunct professor in the department of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies. She and Huffman co-taught “Service Learning: Sport and Community Development” in which UT students ran an after-school program for Iraqi refugees; kids received tutoring, while their moms learned about fitness and nutrition. As the refugees integrated into the community, Huffman restructured the course to provide after-school activities for local youth.
Once the Center for Sport, Peace and Society was founded, its sports-visitor program brought female teams from other countries to the Girls Inc. after-school program in Oak Ridge two or three times a year. Alanna Hunsaker, program director for Girls Inc., says visitors from places like Iran and Brazil ran sports clinics where the girls learned new games or experienced new kinds of coaching. Some of the visitors have stayed in touch with the girls through social media.
Hillyer says she would like the Center for Sport, Peace and Society to work more with UT athletes—and coaches—in the future.
This school year the Center joined a new partnership, along with UT Athletics and the college’s Center for Leadership and Service, to create the VOLeaders Academy. Coaches nominated athletes with leadership potential and 13 were chosen, representing nine sports, to learn how to use their platform as athletes to improve the world.
The program includes courses on personal and community leadership development and a capstone service trip to Brazil this summer. Hillyer and Huffman are teaching a “Sport for Social Change” course to the VOLeaders this semester.
As class begins, Hillyer slaps high-fives or shakes hands with each of the students trailing into class. The 44-year-old professor—who looks and dresses like a women’s sports coach on game day—is constantly moving, occasionally miming “swish” shots at the white board. Her sunglasses stay perched in her blond-tipped, spiky hair as if she might head out for a jog at any moment. (In fact, it is 45 degrees and pouring outside.)
Students spend a few minutes reviewing the vocabulary of sports sociology before proving their knowledge in—naturally—a game.
Maybe sports sociology sounds like a fluffy subject. After all, games imply something carefree and fun. But they are also a vehicle for socialization and education. So the academic discipline poses questions like: When is a game not a game? Who is allowed to play (and who’s not), and why? Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Is being a good sport about losing gracefully? Or playing along with your oppressor? Who’s making the rules?
“How serious should they take this review?” Hillyer asks loudly.
Huffman with the assist: “It depends on how badly they want to win.”
“I want to win,” says swimmer Ryan Coetzee, before he even knows what they’re talking about.
Students have varying learning styles, but the professors can always bet that competition will motivate these athletes. The students pick team names (one group chooses “It’s on You”) and pretty soon they’re going head-to-head with quiz questions. There’s no buzzer. The person who knows the answer tries to be first to grab whatever object lies on the table —a rotating array of sports equipment (half the students can’t identify the rugby ball), costume elements, and toys. The athletes immediately start gaming the rules, looking for loopholes that would allow them to pass off a question to a teammate.
One of the questions relates to how girls are socialized to become women and boys are socialized to become men. It spawns a short discussion.
“What kind of toys do you get boys?” asks Huffman. The students answer: balls, trucks, building blocks. “Cool things,” she clarifies.
Huffman’s long, straight blonde hair sweeps past her shoulders; she favors spangly, dangly earrings and often speaks softly, with gently humorous self-deprecation. Yet you will definitely hear her when she wants to make a point, and the 32-year-old has a muscular build that, like Hillyer, emits a vibe of restrained power.
“What kinds of toys do you get girls?” Huffman answers the question herself, with perhaps a trace of bitterness: “Not cool things.”
Later, the athletes school each other on recent class readings. Matthew Zajac, a thrower for the track and field team, was struck by what he learned about the role of sports in regions torn by war, where boys are often recruited into violent brotherhoods. Sports provide an opportunity to build a similar, but healthier, camaraderie.
After class he tweeted, “Sport is a ‘hook’ to starting peaceful relationships. It’s a way for people to see the human in all of us.”
In that game, there are no losers.
Featured photo at top:
A girl juggles a ball at a soccer clinic for Syrian refugees in Jordan, arranged by a local woman trained through a State Department program run by UT’s Center for Sports, Peace and Society. Photo by Allison Davis for the U.S. Dept. of State in cooperation with University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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