As the world focuses on the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, an athlete-based, international humanitarian organization is using the spotlight to help promote sports in the poorest parts of the planet. The organization, called Right To Play, helps more than one million children around the world.
When U.S. Olympic skier Nikki Stone won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it led her on a path that would take her half way around the world to Sierra Leone.
"Once you go to the field and you see these children playing and you see what an impact it has on their lives and the smiles on their faces and how excited they are just to be able to play," she noted. "In the United States, it's a luxury; for them, it's changing their lives. They are playing games to teach about HIV. They are playing games to wash their hands. They have red light, green light to learn to wash their hands."
Johann Olav Koss of Norway is the president and CEO of Right To Play and a four-time Olympic speed skating gold medal winner. His organization uses sport to promote a positive life for children.
"Every child in the world has a right to play, and we want to go out into the most disadvantaged areas in the world and provide sport and play programs for their basic life skills training," he said.
To complete that mission, Right To Play draws on the experience and popularity of Stone and other athletes.
And as ambassadors they visit disadvantaged youth in some of the poorest areas on the planet. Right To Play is active in 23 countries, including 15 in Africa.
"It could be in refugee camps, it could be in communities or slums of the cities. We know that many of the challenges that they are overcoming could be of preventable diseases like infectious diseases and we are teaching the children about how they can protect themselves," added Koss.
The Olympics provide an opportunity for Right To Play to recruit new athletes into the movement, but the organization is made up of more than just medal winners. Stars from the National Football League in the United States, worldwide rugby and soccer teams and various other prominent sports all contribute to Right To Play's global outreach.
Stone has traveled to Africa twice on field assignments, and says she gets as much as she gives through the experience.
"I think it's valuable for them," she said. "Once you start giving back, you start to learn the values of teamwork, you start realizing how commitment will make a difference. And it is something that if thet put the time in it's just going to pay back to them."
Right To Play says each week more than one million children take part in its activities, administered through a network of more than 15,000 coaches, teachers and leaders.