By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
Jess Hagler can pinpoint the moment he truly understood the importance of The Grassroot Project’s mission.
The GW rower had memorized facts about sexual health, studied lesson plans and learned all the games in preparation for teaching his first eight-week course back in the spring of 2016.
Then, Hagler huddled a group of sixth-graders at Center City Public Charter in Congress Heights for a chat about making responsible choices about sex. Talking to one particularly bold boy with an array of detailed questions, it was clear that these were not hypothetical situations to be dealt with down the road but real-world dilemmas already in their daily lives.
“Every coach has a gut-check moment like that,” said Hagler, now a senior in his fourth year volunteering in the program.
Since 2009, The Grassroot Project – founded by former Georgetown rower Tyler Spencer – has brought together Division I student-athletes from across D.C. to teach middle schoolers important health lessons through fun and games.
Working alongside peers from American, Howard and Georgetown, GW student-athletes have put in the time over the past 10 years to stoke the organization’s growth, helping the organization reach over 5,000 children in 63 different D.C. schools. In all, 351 Colonials have volunteered to the cause, including 52 who currently wear the Buff and Blue.
It’s been an excellent partnership for both sides: TGP has been able to expand its class offerings from HIV education for sixth graders to add nutrition for seventh graders, and it will soon grow again to include a unit for eighth graders regarding mental health. For dozens of GW student-athletes, their volunteer experiences have helped foster interest in community health, non-profit work and education and even launched careers in the field.
A host of past and present Colonials will be part of a gala Friday night in the District to help the organization celebrate a decade of service to the local community.
“With Grassroots, you’re giving back to people in the community by helping them learn something,” said Jane Wallis, a GW women’s soccer alum who currently serves in a full-time role as TGP’s Director of Programs. “I think that element of doing something that is so genuine in a relatively short amount of time is really unique and special.
“That’s why it’s lasted for 10 years. And that’s why it’s going to last for another 10. This isn’t something that’s fleeting in these athletic departments. It’s been here, and it’s here to stay. I think that’s a testament to the type of organization it is, but also the values that are instilled within it because of the people who have been a part of it.”
Spencer founded TGP following the model of a similar program he’d worked with involving pro soccer players in South Africa. It’s been a good fit in a city that has long had one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the U.S. and a dearth of funding for health education in its schools.
On a recent morning at Perry Street Prep in Northeast D.C., squeals of delight filled the gym.
The name of the game was HIV Attacks, and for the past 10 years, it has helped show sixth graders just how difficult it can be for an immune system stricken with HIV to block out germs and disease.
A girl with long braids and a wide smile enjoyed the protection of a classmate representing her immune system in a game of dodgeball. The immune system showed off some serious goalie skills blocking away one toss after another, but the defense didn’t last. She was soon toppled to the ground via a playful hug from another youngster playing the role of HIV.
Every class finishes with a time for sharing, questions and shout-outs. With the day’s message delivered, this one ended with a huddle and cheer of “No HIV.”
“You understand it is a reality in their world,” said Mackenzie Jones, a GW lacrosse alum who will take on a full-time role with the organization this summer. “It’s usually not the first time that most kids have ever heard of HIV, but a lot of the time it is the first time they’re learning so much more about it, and it’s not just this scary three-letter acronym anymore.”
Perry Street Prep, a public charter school founded in 1999, started utilizing TGP to deliver those lessons last year through a grant from the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
Director of Operations Kelly Smith said the program has had a positive impact on the school, even beyond the valuable lessons that present potentially uncomfortable material in an approachable way.
With a handful of coaches usually present at each lesson and eight weeks’ worth of instruction, there are opportunities to make real connections.
“Our kids just don’t have those role models in their life as often,” Smith said. “A majority of their parents did not go to college. I think just the accessibility to an adult who is in college and successful and has taken an athletic path is something that’s really meaningful for our kids.”
The Colonials agree the relationships are what makes the program standout among the myriad of service opportunities available around the region.
A junior volleyball player, Skylar Iott has given her time at several different organizations over three years in Foggy Bottom, spanning everything from feeding the homeless to working with kids with special needs to cleaning up the city.
The Michigan native said her work with TGP has been the most meaningful because of the countless small moments every class that let her know she's making an impact.
“To see their faces light up when they’re like ‘I know what you mean now,’ it's really priceless,” Iott said. “It’s being able to assist them in giving you the answer that really makes you feel very satisfied. They know the answer. They just might need a little bit of help getting there.”
Jon Mabie has a memory about being hooked right away. The sophomore rower remembers the first time a group of students greeted him to the gym with a cheerful “Goose!” using his nickname in the program.
“It’s so great to have something where you’re not doing it for a grade or a score or a win,” Mabie said. “At the end of the day, we’re just doing this to make ourselves better and to make the community better."
Callie Fauntleroy agreed the bonds formed over eight weeks together can be meaningful. That was never more apparent than when the sophomore on the volleyball team shared with her class about a cousin who died by suicide after a long history of substance abuse.
“I hadn’t even really shared it with many people, but I wanted these kids to know that we are people that they can talk to, and we are just as human and vulnerable as they are,” Fauntleroy said. “They make such an impact on us. It’s not just us making an impact on them.”
Iott, Mabie and Fauntleroy have all taken on leadership roles in the organization after completing an internship last summer that included assignments to explore the city on a deeper level and a visit to South Africa. They are now in charge with training the next generation of coaches.
That trio is the latest in a line of student-athletes who have stepped up to take on major roles and made a difference.
At the urging of her then-head coach and now GW Director of Athletics & Recreation Tanya Vogel, Wallis attended the second-ever training open to Colonials in the fall of 2010 and dove into the fledgling organization.
She was part of TGP’s first student-athlete leadership team before it even had full-time staff and enjoyed the experience enough to change from a pre-med track to being a Public Health major.
After serving two years in the Peace Corps in Zambia, Wallis returned to TGP in her current role, which has included designing curricula for the new programs.
The nutrition course launched this year, and the plan is to begin a pilot program of the mental health unit in the fall. The new model allows for allows for student-athletes to potentially work with the same kids over three years and develop even stronger relationships.
She’ll be joined by her fellow former Colonial Jones in the TGP office this summer as they work with Spencer to plot the organization’s future.
“There’s a family of people within Grassroots, and I love heading up that family and making this a space where all different types of athletes feel really welcome,” Wallis said. “Even if you’re not the best player on your team (or) you’re not the smartest kid in class, you can come to Grassroots and play a major role.”
Calling via WhatsApp from the country of Togo in West Africa, track/cross country alum Lauren T'kint de Roodenbeke echoes the praises of TGP.
The 2018 graduate started working with TGP as a first-year looking to satisfy the department’s 10-hour community service requirement and ended up volunteering more than 100 hours every year.
Along the way, T’kint de Roodenbeke learned the ins and outs of a community health-focused non-profit. In addition to her time in the classroom, she wrote grant proposals, completed research, trained newcomers and built a resume that landed her this opportunity halfway across the globe working to improve health care in the most remote regions of the tiny African nation.
“It really opened doors for me,” T’kint de Roodenbeke said. “It just feels like they care. I’ve never had a work experience like that in my life, and I think it’s going to be hard to find that again.”
Right now, Hagler is trying to savor his final weeks in the program. The senior from California recently wrapped up his final teaching assignment running the seventh-grade nutrition program at Center City Public Charter’s Trinidad Campus.
The hours that he put in over the past four years both in the TGP office and in classrooms in all corners of the District have tested the limits of his schedule around school and rowing, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s confident that he’s made a difference.
“With Grassroots, you can see the impact that you’re making,” Hagler said. "You’re not just coming through a cog in the machine. Every interaction that you have and everything that you do creates its own legacy in some respects, and that cycle, especially over four years, is pretty neat.”