Students join public health with soccer at Uganda youth camp

A team of graduate and undergraduate students and alumni traveled to Uganda in August to lead a public health workshop conducted through soccer charity Ray United FC. RUFC’s founder is 12-year-old Ray Wipfli, son of USC Professor Heather Wipfli, who also serves as the associate director of the USC Institute for Global Health.

After years working with partners in the country, Wipfli had promised her three children they’d each get to travel with her to Africa when they turned 10. The oldest, Ray, was first. He accompanied the USC Global Health team in 2014 while they developed Maama Ne Maama, a maternal health initiative, and other non-communicable disease prevention work.

In keeping with her blended work-family lifestyle, Wipfli built upon the momentum of Ray’s memorable first trip—which included an exuberant community soccer game—and helped Ray launch a non-profit organization that uses soccer and education to develop healthy kids and communities. The first major activity for RUFC was a five-day youth soccer camp that incorporated USC students as health educators and trainers.

The camp, organized in collaboration with Uganda NGO Twezimbe Development Foundation, incorporated professional soccer coaches and local businesses, and reached approximately 1,300 students from more than two-dozen local schools.

In the past 12 months Wipfli’s students, candidates in both the Master of Public Health program and undergraduate global health major, developed a public health curriculum and student workbook that were implemented at the soccer camp. They traveled to Uganda with more than 600 pounds of donated soccer and camp equipment including soccer balls, backpacks, camp shirts, pencils and hygiene kits for more than 1,000 students. Once there, they paired with medical and nursing students from Makerere University in Kampala. Each morning, the team packed into a bus for the hour trek southwest to rural Mpigi for eight-hour days of training, scrimmages and health classes.

The educational lessons ranged from dental hygiene to sanitation practices, and stressed the importance of physical activity as a contributor to preventive health and wellness. In addition to soccer training and health education, the campers enjoyed healthful meals provided each of the five days.

The USC students developed pre- and post-assessments which they administered to the youth to evaluate their baseline knowledge and learning from the experience. They will analyze the data to inform next year’s camp.

One of the most rewarding moments of the trip, according to Wipfli, was when a young girl raised her hand to ask if girls were allowed to play soccer. When the coach said yes, they were encouraged to, they erupted into cheers and applause.

“Watching the girls play affirmed all the hard work over the past year to raise the funds and develop the materials to make this camp a reality,” Wipfli said.

RUFC is currently building new classrooms for the rural Namabo Primary School in Mpigi and garnered more than $30,000 in its first year to accomplish both the soccer camp and fund the school’s construction.

The USC students remained in Uganda for an additional week after the end of the camp to visit health centers and organizations working to improve health in the country.