The Grassroot Project: Over 1,000 NCAA Athletes Creating Mental Health Education

Our Editor in Chief, Leeann Passaro, sat down with Dylan Wolfe, former collegiate athlete and Digital Communications Manager at The Grassroot Project based in Washington, DC. The Grassroot Project (TGP) is a team of more than 1,000 NCAA varsity athletes and 5,000 DC teens who are committed to making our nation’s cities healthier physically and mentally. The Grassroot Project uses sports to provide much-needed health literacy and social empowerment programs to middle school youth. TGP also invests in the leadership training, cultural competency, and professional skills of hundreds of NCAA varsity athletes who serve as program facilitators.

Keep reading to learn about this fabulous non-profit and their work to provide mental health education to children in need.

Dylan Wolfe played soccer at American University in Washington, DC. She volunteered for The Grassroot Project through college and then took a full-time job with them post-graduation.

What is The Grassroot Project? What do you do?

The Grassroot Project (TGP) is a 501(3)(c) community-based organization that challenges the way we approach health education with youth. In 2009, Tyler Spencer and 39 Georgetown student-athletes founded the Grassroot Project. At the time, Washington, DC was experiencing an epidemic: 1 in 20 residents were living with HIV. Having had experience with HIV prevention work in South Africa using the power of sport, Tyler recognized that the same model could be applied in our nation’s capital. Starting small, TGP launched 8-week HIV prevention programs in DC middle schools led by NCAA athletes through sports and games. Though the rates of HIV are lower now in The District, TGP’s work is far from over. 

The CDC found that only half of middle and high schools meet their health education standards and only about 24% of youth meet daily recommended physical activity standards. While sexual health is a huge driver of TGP’s mission to advance health equity for youth, we realized that using sports was an effective way to create safe spaces for youth to discuss and learn about uncomfortable health topics, while also being physically active. Since 2009 we have expanded into two additional topic areas to create a three-year pipeline for students to learn about sexual health, nutrition/physical health, and mental health in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Alongside in-school programs, we additionally host parent/caregiver programs and link students to health service providers and resources based in their community.

Since 2009 we have expanded into two additional topic areas to create a 3-year pipeline for students to learn about sexual health, nutrition/physical health, and mental health in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade.

Who makes up the TGP team? 

I am so lucky to be surrounded by such an incredible team at TGP. Nearly everyone on our team was a volunteer with TGP at one point when they were a student-athlete in college and have come back to the organization. On staff we are led by our Founder and Executive Director, Tyler Spencer. It’s amazing to see that even eleven years later he continues to put his all into the organization since its inception. Our Director of Programs, Jane Wallis, was a former George Washington University women’s soccer player, TGP coach, and Peace Corps volunteer. Her direction and leadership is invaluable to the growth, fidelity, and impact of our school programs. The rest of our staff’s work in programs, finance, and communications is essential to being able to deliver quality programs to our DC community. 

However, our team is not just made up of staff. Our team ultimately is our DC community. The schools and the teachers that we partner with are our team. Our student-athlete volunteers have an incredible impact on our organizational growth and culture, even including the ones who graduate and support us from afar. They are our team. We really have created a family here at Grassroots, and it’s an incredible community support system.

What schools are TGP partners and how do you get volunteers? 

TGP partners with DC public and charter middle schools. Right now we have partnerships with twelve DC middle schools allowing us to reach nearly 1,000 middle school students per year. All of these schools work with us to implement our three-year pipeline. Some volunteers are able to work with the same middle school students over the course of three years, and the relationships we see form are truly special. 

We also partner with four Division 1 universities in the DC area: American University, Howard University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University. Over the years, TGP has cultivated relationships with our student-athletes, and oftentimes, our current TGP volunteers are the ones to bring their friends along to their first training. When I was at AU playing soccer, Jane came into our locker room and told us about an incredible opportunity to be a part of Grassroots. After that, a group of teammates and I decided to go to the training to see what TGP was all about. I was able to meet and get to know athletes from all over the city, and get out of my comfort zone and university bubble. Not only that, but I was able to be a part of something outside of my sport and school that connected me to my DC community that has a lasting impact.

Why does TGP use student-athletes specifically for this kind of work?

TGP uses student-athletes as near-peer health educators to help break down some of the barriers of communicating with youth. Sport is a universal language, and many of our youth are excited about the fact that they get to work with a college athlete from universities that they recognize. Student-athletes are driven and have the specific team building and leadership qualities that make for an impactful volunteer coach. 

Our coaches are role models for youth because they are the physical embodiment of something for young people to aspire to be: whether that’s playing sports competitively or attending college in the future. Coaches are able to share their honest experiences and challenges they have faced in their sport and in life to show that everyone goes through obstacles in life, but we can be resilient when things don’t go our way. 

A really close friend of mine who I met through TGP, Tyree Leonard, is the perfect example of this. He is a former Howard football player turned strength and conditioning intern for the program after a career ending injury. I’ve witnessed him talking to aspiring middle school football players and having conversations about what it takes to be a college athlete, the importance of academics, and how he has overcome obstacles in his own journey.

In reality, our student-athletes aren’t that much older than the youth we work with. This allows for really organic conversations to happen. When in programs, I have had really honest conversations about mental health, sexual health, consent, and nutrition where students were able to be unafraid to ask questions. When we deliver our programs, it’s one thing to learn about factual health information, however the near-peer model relationship helps students think about how this knowledge can actually be applied in real life, and recognize why it is so important to promote our health.

 And at the end of the day, it’s a nice, exciting change for middle schoolers to engage with athletes, and know that they are going to build a relationship with them over the course of a semester.  

What kind of training do TGP volunteers undergo?

Before student-athletes are able to enter programs, there’s a lot of training required to not only learn our curricula, but also facilitate it in a way that creates inclusive safe-spaces for students. Coaches undergo a four-day training before being able to enter programs. We train athletes about the culture we want to cultivate at TGP, why impact-based community work is important, how to shift away from a savior mindset, and the ins-and-outs of our health curricula. We also take deep dives into important health information, how to create safe spaces, and utilize facilitation skills. 

Something special about TGP is that any type of athlete can have an impact. Whether you’re extroverted or introverted, we remind athletes that it’s not about being loud, it’s about being heard. We place athletes in programs in groups of around 5, so that they can not only work together as a team, but also so that each of their personal strengths can have impacts on the program. Sometimes there’s a coach who leads the game, and another who has one-on-one conversations with students who may be wary of participating or need more personalized attention.

How do you approach tough conversations with students about these stigmatized health topics?

The main way we approach conversations with students about stigmatized topics like mental health, sexual health, and nutrition is through fun and active games. These games teach important lessons and break down barriers when talking about health topics. Student’s are able to take away key messages from each activity, and apply it to their everyday life and health behavior. 

For example in our 8th-grade mental health program, we have a game called “Stress Football.” In this game, there is a QB and a receiver. In the first round, there are no obstacles, and the QB passes to the receiver with ease. However, in the second round, we add a defender. The defender represents acute stressors we face in life –stressors that are pretty common, like homework or exams. In the third round, instead of a defender, we add a speed-parachute to the receiver. The parachute holds them back as they run to catch the ball. We say that the parachute represents chronic stressors that we face in life –stressors that are not always visible on the exterior and can constantly hold someone back, like a parent’s divorce or violence in the community. In the final round, we add it all together with a parachute and multiple defenders, and catching the ball is extremely difficult for students. We use this to represent compounding stress, the idea that if you have chronic stress, dealing with acute stressors can be exceedingly difficult as the stress piles on. After the activity, we talk it out in small groups and introduce the concept of coping with each of these stressors.

Does TGP have plans for expansion?

TGP is at an incredible stage in its growth. Over the last nine months, our leadership and board has been working on a comprehensive strategic plan, a plan that will allow TGP to both become more sustainable and efficient in DC and to grow into new cities where health education is needed. We know that our model can have success in other cities outside of DC, and we are excited to see that in action in the coming years.

How can student athletes from our community help your mission?

The main thing student-athletes can do is be a part of your community that you’re in. I urge student-athletes to engage in service that is not only community driven, but sustainable and impact based. TGP encourages student-athletes to think critically about service opportunities and recognize the value of truly learning from and with your community. Student athletes across The Hidden Opponent community have the potential to be leaders, demand more of themselves, think critically about to use their platforms to produce social change, and reimagine the intersect between athletics, public health, service, and community building. I hope that this “deep dive” into TGP can inspire more athletes and help to grow our mission and vision for athlete-led social change. If you’re interested in learning more about TGP, we encourage you to follow us on social media, visit our website, or contribute to our growing mission.