Monday, March 02, 2009

Ethan Zohn, Survivor and Philanthropist

Ethan Zohn is a nice guy. He’s not on the front page of the tabloids, he’s not in jail for tax evasion, he’s just a nice guy who works incredibly hard to raise awareness for an important topic. I’ve known Ethan for a few years now, since I started the blog and was approached to write about him. Later, we had the opportunity to work on a possible book project together (it didn’t come to fruition, unfortunately). But through these emails and talking about the book project, I’ve learned about Ethan and I’m excited that we finally had a chance to do this interview.

Ethan’s passionate about what he does. He wants to help people and he doesn't just say it, only to remove himself from the public eye with his winnings. He MEANS it. Ever since winning a million bucks on Survivor: Africa, he’s been on the go. But he’s not jet-setting and spending his winnings (although I’m sure he enjoys it). Instead, he’s dedicated this phase of his life to helping children with AIDS. He took his money and founded Grassroot Soccer, an organization whose goal is to "mobilize the global soccer community to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa".

Last year, starting on August 20, 2008, he dribbled a soccer ball 500-miles (!) from Foxboro, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. to raise money/awareness for Grassroot Soccer. We had a chance to talk after the event was over.

How did that go?
It was a great finale to a 100-day journey.

Are you exhausted?
Yeah, I’m pretty wiped out. It was a long campaign, 100 days. And I got some injuries in the middle of that, which didn’t help things. But overall, obviously, it was a great event.

How did you connect with the kids in Zimbabwe and want to help them?

I started playing professional soccer in 1997, and I played for the Hawaii Tsunami and for the Crusaders. Then I got the chance to travel to Zimbabwe to play for a team called the Highlanders Football Club in the Zimbabwe Premier League. That was my first time I got to go to Africa. While I was there, I had some amazing experiences, and I witnessed firsthand what was happening with HIV and AIDS and how it was just destroying this community that I was now part of.

A young kid on my team, 19-years-old, ended up getting sick from AIDS and dying. So that was my first time knowing someone that was just completely affected by the disease. But at that time in my life, I was a struggling soccer player, who didn’t know what I could do about it, so I didn’t do anything about it – I figured it’s not my problem. I thought that someone else will kind of deal with this stuff that’s in Africa.

And then you were on Survivor...

Right, I came back home, continued playing, living my life, coaching, playing, then Survivor came along. And my Survivor was coincidentally filmed in Kenya, Africa. While I was playing the game, I got to play hackey sack with all of these Kenyan children during one of these reward challenges that I won, but I later found out that all these children that I was playing with were HIV positive. So here I am, in the middle of this kind of game of Survivor, this cutthroat game, and I had a real-life experience.

So it was at that moment that I decided that something had to be done. (I thought) if I come out the big winner, I’m going to do something good with my money and with the fame that comes along with it. When I came back from the show, which I won, I got a call from a close friend of mine, Dr. Tommy Clark, and he had a fantastic idea to use the power of soccer and the fight against AIDS. I just jumped at the chance to get involved.

Are you type of person that believes that this is fate?

I think destiny helps. I’ve never been asked that question before. I guess everything happens for a reason, I guess I kind of believe that. But you know, on the flip side, I think you make your own destiny. And I think I could’ve come away from those experiences saying oh well, you know, that kind of sucks…that sucks for those people. But I was personally touched. And I think any human being with feelings and with any sense of responsibility to the human family, would do the same thing I would do.

There’s a great quote that I always say, “To do nothing is also to act.” After I knew it existed, I couldn’t just do nothing. If I did nothing, I’m consciously making a decision to do nothing about this problem and that just wasn’t an option for me.

How has this changed you?
The whole celebrity thing is a little bit strange. Here I was, literally just a dude coaching and playing soccer, and then, in a span of 3 months, you’re from nothing to being on the cover of magazines. It was a little hard for me to grasp and hard for me to adjust to. But I think putting my efforts into the charity, gave me a platform to focus my celebrity on.

I thought, “I’ll do your interview for Sirius Radio, but I’m talking about Grassroot Soccer, or I’ll make an appearance on Fear Factor, but I’m wearing a Grassroot Soccer t-shirt.” I know it’s flavor-of-the-month, it’s 15 minutes of fame, it’s my moment in the spotlight, and I just wanted to use this time to really try to create change in the world, and make an impact, and leave a legacy. And when it’s over, it’s over. That’s fine with me, but I did my best to use it to my advantage.

You train pro soccer players to teach HIV/AIDS prevention to African children?

The way our curriculum works is we really saw the value in using professional soccer as role models for the community. When they show in an area, people will follow and kids will listen to what they have to say. Our goal is to change these kids’ behavior. They are making the wrong decisions. So if we can change their behavior to have them make right choices in life, that’s what we’re going for. We promote open communication about HIV/AIDS between parents and teenagers – we have the info on HIV– how it’s spread, how it’s caused, how the biology of it works.

We also direct them where to get information about HIV/AIDS. We encourage them to be leaders in the community once they graduate and they can teach their friends. There will be no gender inequality, peer pressure, sexual coercion or stigma. We address all these things. A lot of these kids have a very negative look into the future, so we address their future and how to create a hopeful one.

How do you do that?

We use fun, interactive games, where the kids are on their feet, running around, maybe using drama, role-playing, singing, poetry, art, soccer, sports, and the people that are delivering these messages are their heroes. For example, there’s one game, Find the Ball, where kids line up with their arms behind their back and pass the ball behind them so you can’t see where the ball is. Other kids try to guess where the ball is at the end of the little session. They can’t guess it, because they can’t see who’s holding the ball. Now, this ball represents HIV and you play the game again. You look at someone, and just by seeing their face and the way their body is, can you tell they’re HIV positive? No, you can’t. The only way to know is to get a blood test. Where can you get a blood test? A hospital or a clinic. So we use these fun games to get the messages across.

Any kid that has stuck out in your mind?

One of our final games is kind of like a Oprah-type show. We have a host and a panel of people and the kids can ask anonymous questions. But we have the kids write the questions the night before on a piece of paper. They don’t sign them. They hand them in to us and we pick them out of a hat. One of the questions was from a girl, and she says, I would rather die of AIDS than starve to death. We were addressing the idea of sugar daddies, – because they need school books, money for food, etc. and their parents can’t afford it. So they’re encouraged to go get sugar daddies, which are these guys who will give them the stuff in return for sex, which is a major issue obviously for all the real reasons, but also the spread of HIV.

The girl that said that is a 12-year-old girl. I just can’t get that out of my mind. She stood up, she raised her hand, she said, I would rather die of AIDS than starve to death. These are the decisions 12-year-old girls are making in Africa! Do I die of starvation, or do I sleep with this dirty old disgusting man and get AIDS? I can live longer and go to school and hang out with my friends?

In Zambia, this kid named Evie, a 19-year-old semi-professional soccer player, lives in a shack in the middle of one of the slums. His father was one of the most famous sports broadcasters in all of Zambia; he announced all the soccer games. In 1980, his father announced to the entire country when the Zambia national team’s airplane crashed; there was only 1 survivor. So Evie’s father died of AIDS, and his mother died of AIDS, and his brother and sister died of AIDS. So here’s this 19-year-old kid who’s lost everyone in his family. He could just curl up in a ball and do nothing, but instead, he joined Grassroot Soccer and he’s one of our expert trainers and now he’s using this sport that teaches kids about AIDS. It’s a wonderful story.

Does he have AIDS?

He does not have AIDS, no. About 8000 people a day die of AIDS. That’s every day that people are dying of a preventable disease. Bird flu gets front-page news and it’s killed like 30 people worldwide. You don’t hear about AIDS front news anymore and that’s why it’s my mission to keep AIDS on front-page news.

Whose idea was the dribble?

The dribble was my idea with another guy over 2 ½ years ago, so we were working on it for awhile now. We finally got to a point where we could do it about six months ago getting corporate sponsors and figuring out a program that works.

I went from Boston to Washington, D.C., 100 days, 550 miles. In the morning, we’d get up, we’d dribble on the side of the road about 15 miles and then the afternoon was a speech, soccer tournament, college game, TV appearance, home-based fundraiser in the back, etc.

What do you have next?

I have a new television show, Earth Tripping, about eco-friendly travel and adventure. So we get to go to Singapore, Malaysia, Chile, Argentina. We just land at a major metropolitan city, and where people think there aren’t many options to have fun and still maintain an eco-friendly attitude. But we really would go there and teach them how to travel in a big city and not leave a footprint on the environment.

Ethan is now a motivational speaker and has won awards for his work with Grassroot Soccer. If you’re interested in helping Ethan and his organization, check out the website and feel free to donate or host an event. There’s plenty to do!

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