In January this year, when Delani* turned up for treatment at the Whizzkids United Health Academy at Edendale Hospital, Marcus McGilvray was surprised but delighted. The boy had been born HIV-positive and was refusing to take his medication to get back at his parents for passing on the disease. But of course, by leaving his immune system exposed, Delani was most likely to hurt himself.

Delani hadn’t taken his drugs for over a year,” says Marcus. “But all of a sudden, here he was. He hadn’t been asked by his parents to come along. He’d made his own choice.”

 

So what made him change his mind?

The answer is football

Delani had originally come to the academy for coaching sessions on its football pitch—a welcome change from the dusty scrubland near his home. But his experience there started to change his self-destructive persona. “He made friends who liked him for who he was,” Marcus says, “people who looked up to him because he was good at football.”

No longer just defined by his illness, Delani now felt comfortable enough at the academy to enrol in one of its treatment programmes. Three months on, he still turns up weekly to take his medication, is in reasonable health, and has joined a peer support group. Delani is one of thousands of South African youngsters Marcus and his academy have helped come to terms with, and get treatment for, HIV in the last few years—thanks to an innovative mix of football and health outreach. 

 

Targeting Children

Marcus, former London clinic worker, took a job developing training for Kwa-Zulu Natal health professionals in the use of HIV drugs. But some 45 per cent of adults and 16 per cent of adolescents in the region are HIV-positive, and Marcus really wanted to work on prevention. “Giving people advice and support before they’re infected is what saves lives,” he says.

But the group who really needed to be targeted was children. So Marcus asked for a day off a week to set up a street clinic in a small town called Mariannhill. Only a handful of kids came to the first session, but Marcus noticed many more were playing football on a sun-baked field nearby. On a hunch, he asked a local community leader if he could get 40 youths to a municipal pitch for a game of football at 3pm the following Monday. Four hundred turned up.

The matches continued for the next few weeks and Marcus realised that once the young people got to know and trust him, the sessions were a great chance for them to speak about their health and other problems in a safe environment.

“Someone would always confide in you, usually at the end of the session,” he says. “You’d hear stories of rape, physical abuse and violence.” Marcus would also learn which youngsters were HIV-positive and encourage them to get the treatment and support they so desperately needed.

 

A life without goals?

He developed the sessions into a fully fledged programme called Whizzkids United and, over the next four years, took it to schools and community groups around Edendale—and eventually into South Africa’s Western Cape and North West provinces. In one of the programme’s exercises, the children were asked to play without any goals. “After a while, they’d complain about it—that they were running around in circles with nothing to aim for,” explains Marcus. “So we asked ‘What is better, a life with or without goals?’ The game became an analogy for life.”

The programme also emphasised the importance of working together to overcome challenges—and the importance of a goalkeeper to protect the team was used to explain the need for contraception to protects couples from HIV. Both sexes took part and, says Marcus, “Girls began to understand the peer pressure on boys to have lots of partners and boys started to appreciate why girls would say no.”

 

The birth of the Health Academy

Yet, while the sessions were clearly valuable in helping the youngsters with their social skills and sexual behaviour, Marcus wasn’t sure how many ever actually went to get HIV treatment: “For young people, there was too much stigma attached to going to a clinic.” It occurred to him that, for these young people, journeying to an unfamiliar place on the other side of town to talk to strangers about their problems would be a lot more traumatic than just being taken after a football session to a clinic a few yards away by someone they trusted. “We needed a base where the same kids could come every week, play football and see health professionals.”

And so the idea of the Health Academy —putting Whizzkids United’s combination of football and HIV treatment and advice to use in the grounds of Edendale Hospital—was born. But it would take some £60,000 to set up. Marcus went to companies, aid organisations, governments and charities throughout South Africa, across the rest of the continent and all over the world. Even so, finding the money was often a soul-destroying process.

 

Every day was a struggle

Then, in 2009, the American pharmaceuticals firm Abbott—whose UK charity fund had helped set up a Whizzkids project in the UK—donated half the money. A few months later, Brian Moshal, CEO of the Victor Daitz Foundation—a charity-funding body based in Durban—told Marcus he’d provide the rest. “It was what I’d waited so long to hear,” Marcus says. “I nearly jumped out of my seat.”

The Whizzkids United Health Academy opened in June 2010. It has now seen 12,000 young people, giving them access to a counsellor and HIV testing. Some 1,100 have tested positive, and around 600 are currently receiving treatment. But, stresses Marcus, “supporting a young person with HIV isn’t only about giving them the drugs. It’s also about helping them with their situation.”

The academy also now runs educational and work experience programmes. One of Fifa’s Football for Hope centres, which promote public health and education, opens on the site this month. During the World Cup six youngsters are heading to Brazil to take part in a tournament for disadvantaged people.

*SOME NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT PRIVACY

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