Freestyle skier Emily Cook shares her experiences in Tanzania with Right to Play

Emily Cook is a two-time Olympian in freestyle skiing. She's currently working toward representing the United States in Sochi, and took time out of her busy training schedule to visit Tanzania with Right to Play. She and other Athlete Ambassadors went to visit Right to Play's programs that are designed to meet their mission of using sport and play to educate and empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease in disadvantaged communities. She wrote about her experience for Fourth-Place Medal.

Can you imagine a world with no disease? One with confident, happy children, supportive families and thriving communities? Thirteen-year-old Agnella, who participates in programs with the global non-profit organization Right To Play, can see this possibility for her community and for the world.

This May, I had the privilege of meeting Agnella while visiting some of the most disadvantaged areas of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, with Right To Play staff and volunteers. Along with Athlete Ambassadors Shelly Rudman (Skeleton-UK) and Georgia Simmerling (Ski Cross-Canada), I learned how more than 52,000 children participating in Right To Play programs in Tanzania are impacted.

On our first day, the Right To Play staff introduced us to the major programs taking place in Tanzania, as well as many of the local partners Right To Play works with in the area. They described their documented results: Improved life skills such as communication, cooperation and coping skills; adoption of healthy practices and disease prevention; leadership development; improved attitudes towards child rights and social cohesion; peace; confidence and community. With more than 3,100 volunteer Coaches and 1,000 Junior Leaders participating in Tanzania alone, this seemed a massive undertaking and I was eager to see how the programs were actually being implemented.

Once we were educated about the programs, it was time to see them in action. One of our stops was at the Msimamo Youth Educator Center. While walking from our van through the center of the community, I realized that having four walls and a roof suddenly seemed a luxury. Children ran about with bare feet and in clothing hanging by threads. When we reached a clearing, we were greeted by hundreds of smiling children ready to play, and were welcomed into a circle to prepare for an afternoon of games. We sang, danced, laughed and connected despite the lack of a common language or background.

One of Us, All of Us
I then joined a group of older kids in a game called "one of us, all of us." While the physical activity was like a fast moving team game of keep-away, the discussion preceding and following focused on community. The game showed that when one member of a community is affected by something, everyone in that community is in turn affected. The discussion deepened, showing that a simple game can help build strong relationships, prevent disease and protect children’s rights.

In a primary school, we joined a game of young children with both cognitive and physical disabilities. Various games were adapted to each child’s ability level and focused on building confidence and teaching hygiene skills such as putting garbage in a trash can and hand washing.

In another youth center my new friends and I played a game in which I was blindfolded and had to tag my fellow participants. I called out, "Where are you?" and they responded, "We are here," with the sound of their voices guiding me towards them. Afterwards we sat in a close group and discussed the game. "How did it feel to be in the circle, blind and alone?" the Right To Play Coach asked.

The children responded thoughtfully, acknowledging that the game could symbolize the loneliness and stigma associated with living with a disease such as HIV and AIDS. The response "We are here," represented the opportunity for friends, family and community to provide support. We discussed what it was like to feel vulnerable and isolated, and what it meant to have your friends’ support.

Another game provided the forum for discussion about transmission, diagnosis of HIV and AIDS, and how to remain healthy. The honest and open responses by these children was a learning experience for me, and I found myself looking to a young boy in the community, who became not only my translator, but guide throughout the discussion.

I left the youth center feeling completely blown away by the change in perception and education that these children were experiencing, and the profoundly different future they represent.

This impact is not unique to Tanzania.

In Uganda, for example, evaluations show that 92 percent of children participating in Right To Play programs know ways of preventing HIV from sexual transmission, compared to 50 percent of children not in Right To Play programs. In addition, 94% of children participating in Right To Play programs believe that people living with HIV and AIDS should attend school, compared to 54 percent not participating in these programs. Educators report a greater knowledge of the disease as well as an increased adherence to medication protocol. Right To Play volunteer Coaches, simply said, are creating safer and more accepting environments, child by child.

Each school, shelter and youth center was unique. While each teacher and Coach brought their own style and personality to the group, the process and results were equally impactful. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed literally with open arms. Though it was clear my fellow Athlete Ambassadors and I came from different backgrounds, looked different and spoke a different language, the children and Coaches invited us to join their community, play their games and encouraged us through smiles and helping hands to be a part of their lives, if only for a few hours.

Though Agnella and children like her live in a world I can hardly imagine – one ravaged by poverty, HIV and AIDS – she and many others spoke in a manner well past their years, with confidence, expressiveness and an optimistic view of the future. When speaking with her under a tree after an hour of playing Right To Play games, she told me that that if every child had access to Right To Play, a world of joy and health would be our collective experience.

I will leave Tanzania with a feeling of profound love and gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunities I was blessed with – ample food, a safe and warm home and loving family – but also gratitude for the ability of human beings to transcend impending challenges, to contribute to one another, and to create a more peaceful and abundant society.

Learn more about Right to Play here.