By Anthony G. Alessi, MD, FAAN
Since completing the AAN's Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum in 2004, my life has not been the same. The Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum has given me the necessary tools to successfully identify and develop advocacy projects on a regular basis. Over the course of the past five years, these worthwhile projects seem to have found me, although none has been as compelling as the one I experienced this September.
In the past few weeks, we have seen photos and video footage of the poverty and hunger that has besieged Haiti for decades. While on a recent medical mission to hurricane-ravaged Haiti, I came across one of the most inspiring and unexpected sports stories I have ever witnessed.
Located only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Although slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, Haiti has a population of seven million.
The Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) of Norwich, CT, has been caring for the poor of Haiti since 1982. Dedicated workers have built schools, medical clinics, and housing for the people of Jeremie, Haiti, and 105 surrounding villages.
The HHF’s founder, local orthodontist Jeremiah Lowney, DDS, MS, MPH, leads physicians, dentists, and willing volunteers from all walks of life to work with the people of Haiti for one week four times a year.
"Over 90 percent of volunteers return to spend additional weeks among the poor," Lowney said.
These pilgrimages are designed to benefit the poor, but it is often the volunteers who find themselves invigorated both physically and spiritually.
While evaluating a young girl in an HHF clinic, I was surprised to discover that she was accompanied by her soccer coach. I couldn’t believe that women’s soccer had been organized and was thriving in this remote area of a third world country, where people struggle simply to exist.
Ordinarily, women do not play soccer in Haiti; it is considered a "male" sport. Haitian girls, especially those in outlying villages, grow up believing that playing games like soccer will deform their reproductive organs and prohibit them from bearing children.
In 2006, HHF started a soccer league for girls between the ages of 13 to 19. Before being allowed to compete, they must complete a one-week course on responsible sexuality. At that time, they receive a uniform and shoes. The course is designed to empower women through knowledge. Classes consist of topics such as reproductive anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases and a woman’s rights under Haitian law. These young girls also learn that education leads to increased opportunities.
This year, almost 1,300 girls were educated in the program and 830 played in the league. Callie Kaplan, a young woman from Chicago, has served as the soccer program’s coordinator for the past year.
"Participation in the HHF soccer program has become a source of pride for the girls and their parents," Kaplan said. Many of the girls' teams train with the local boys' teams.
On September 3, I attended the HHF soccer championship between the villages of Gobin and Fondrouge Dayere. The "field" was nothing like the plush, grassy surfaces we are accustomed to seeing here in the United States. Instead, it was an accumulation of rocks and shells. Scrapes, bruises, and bloodshed are commonly seen after a player falls. Soccer balls wear out quickly and typical equipment like soccer shoes and protective shin guards are nowhere to be found.
Approximately 1,500 fans attended; many had walked for hours from their villages to the city of Jeremie. There were no bleachers or chairs, and many of the younger spectators climbed trees to get a better view. The team from Fondrouge Dayere won a hard-fought and exciting contest by a score of 2 to 1. From the standpoint of sheer entertainment, the cheering fans knew there were no losers.
When it comes to sports, much is taken for granted in the United States. It is comforting to know that women's sports prevail despite extreme poverty. HHF has given young women an opportunity to learn about their bodies and the importance of fitness.
"The only way to curtail incidences of sexually transmitted disease and early pregnancy is through education," Lowney said. "Often, this is best accomplished by linkage to athletics."
Dr. Alessi with the HHF team from the village of Fondrouge Dayere during pre-game ceremonies. Notice the playing surface consisting of stones and broken shells.
In Haiti, these sporting events have become a forum for athletes and spectators to communicate messages regarding responsible sexual practices through the use of banners and announcements.
I was amazed to find such a superb combination of health and sports in a third-world country. This women’s soccer league serves as a beacon of hope for many young women living in despair.
The Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum experience has heightened my awareness of situations where my efforts can make a significant difference in peoples' lives. The opportunity to travel to Haiti with HHF is an extension of involvement in the Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum.
Advocacy knows no national boundaries and neurologists are perfectly suited for these endeavors, given their natural desire to help others. I am certain Dr. Palatucci would be proud of the international legacy he has left us.
Unfortunately, the HHF soccer program is losing its major grant support, potentially ending this worthwhile program. It costs only $1,000 to fund a team, including the most basic equipment and the educational component. While any donation will be gratefully accepted, I encourage individuals or businesses to join me in adopting a team. All donations should be sent to Haitian Health Foundation at 97 Sherman Street, Norwich, CT, 06360. Visit the organization's website for more information.
Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich, CT. Listen to his podcasts or read his Healthy Sports blog. Email him at email@example.com.
Within the past 24 months, Dr. Alessi received personal compensation from Colonial Cooperative Care Inc, of which he is chairman of the board and CEO. In addition, he has served as expert for defense of a civil suit regarding nerve injury.