In 2001, Ethan Zohn, 32, won a million dollars when he outlasted his competition on the hit reality television show, Survivor. He chose to use his money in a pretty remarkable way.
For anyone who has never seen the American TV show Survivor, the premise is this: 16 Americans who have spent their lives pampered by all the warmth, safety, and convenience the West has to offer are sent away to a remote part of the world, to compete with one another in a series of physical challenges. Alliances are built… enemies are made… and in the end, one person emerges as the winner. Five years ago in Kenya, that person was Ethan Zohn.
Zohn had spent several years as a professional soccer player in Zimbabwe, so the realities of life in Africa were not exactly unknown to him. Specifically, he knew that in Africa two million children under the age of 15 are living with HIV, and 12 million others have been made orphans by the AIDS pandemic.
"News from Zimbabwe is pretty unsettling, and when I was there, I kind of witnessed first-hand what was happening with this global AIDS pandemic," he says. "But I felt helpless. You know, truthfully, what can one, white person do to help this massive problem? So I shelved it."
That is, he tried not to think about it after he ended his professional career in Zimbabwe and returned to the United States to coach soccer at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
But then the producers of Survivor selected Zohn to spend six weeks in Kenya, and in one of the show's more memorable episodes, viewers saw him using his feet to juggle a bean-bag-or what's known as a "hackey-sack"--with some HIV positive Kenyan children.
"The smiles on their faces were amazing. I think I made their day," Zohn told viewers of the show. "And then as we were leaving, I threw it to one of the little ones, you know, I gave him the hackey-sack, and he's like, 'Oh, thank you, thank you.'"
It was a moment that left an impression on Ethan Zohn. So after he won his million dollars, he sent his mother on a vacation… bought a car for each of his two brothers… and then used the rest of his money to start a non-profit organization called Grassroot Soccer. The group mobilizes the celebrity power of soccer players in Africa to teach children there about HIV… what it is, how it can be avoided, and perhaps most importantly, how children who have been born with the virus should be treated by their peers.
The group also uses sports to raise awareness among American children about the AIDS crisis in Africa. Ethan Zohn says staggering statistics, like the fact that 25 million Africans are infected with HIV, don't always work. "But when you put real names and faces to what the disease is, it's that much more powerful. And that's my job. That's why I'm in the schools, showing kids that if you're a soccer team in Botswana, there's a 90 percent chance that at your ten year reunion, there will be two of you left. And that makes sense to them, and they want to help."
So far, Grassroot Soccer's American campaign has reached out to more than 70,000 children and gotten them involved in educational and fundraising events that are organized around the theme of sports. Ethan Zohn says athletics are a very effective way to get the point across that the world is a community and that what happens in Africa matters in the United States.
"Soccer, and sports, is like a universal language. I can put a soccer ball down anywhere in the world, and I instantly have 25 friends," he says with a smile. "Sports has the power to… break down cultural stereotypes and grant you instant access to a community, any community around the world. And that model is a good model, you know, sports for change, sports for life."
Celebrity also gives a person instant access to a community, and that is something Ethan Zohn is enjoying now. But he knows it will not be like this forever, and he says that is why he wanted to use his money to create something more permanent.
"I have my 15 minutes of fame, and I want to maximize it," Zohn says. "It's got an expiration date. I'm the 'flavor of the month.' I'm still trying to stretch it out, but when all this dies down, we've created a program, an organization, that has legs."
Grassroot Soccer recently joined forces with the U.S. Agency for International Development to launch what is being called a "Sports for Life" program. They have conducted HIV information seminars at more than 250 schools throughout Ethiopia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and they expect to teach more than a million African children about HIV and AIDS over the next three years.