Into Rwanda, with Roz Groenewoud

Canadian freeskier visits central/eastern African nation as Right to Play ambassador

(Ed’s note: Roz Groenewoud is a member of Canadian Halfpipe Ski Team and current world champion who lives in Squamish, B.C. After a recent, eye-opening trip to Rwanda, she filed this dispatch.)

By Roz Groenewoud

After spending a month training/skiing/coaching on the Blackcomb glacier this summer, all the pieces came together for a trip to Rwanda as an Athlete Ambassador for Right to Play. As I only became an Athlete Ambassador a year ago, I feel very fortunate that I have been able to see Right To Play in action already. For the Aug. 28-Sept. 4 trip, I had the privilege of traveling with three fabulous women: Helen Upperton, a fellow Athlete Ambassador and Canadian bobsleigh pilot extraordinaire; Stephanie Buryk, a Right To Play staffer; and Ariel Grange, a Right to Play supporter and equestrian technician for Olympic horses.

Helen, Ariel and I with Right To Play staff from the Rwanda headquarters.

Helen, Ariel and I with Right To Play staff from the Rwanda headquarters.

What is Right to Play? RTP is an organization built on the belief that children learn so much through play/games; that every child, female, male, disabled and sick, should have access to sport. "Play" is often not part of the lives of children who are living in desperate situations--conflict, poverty, the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Participating in sports has been so important to me that I can't express how deeply I believe in what RTP is doing throughout the world, including in our aboriginal communities in Canada. The mottos that Helen and I stand in front of here (“When children play, the world wins”), isn't just a catchy slogan: it is reality.

I saw the positive impact of sport and play in a country that has had many hardships especially over the past decade. We were pleased to see Right To Play programs working so well and making a positive impact throughout communities, not just for the children. While the genocide is not talked about, especially not to foreigners, we were touched by quiet comments about how the RTP programs were helping them heal.

So what did you do there? The purpose of the Athlete Ambassador trips are two-fold: 1. to inspire children to reach for excellence and offer support and recommendations to teachers and coaches, 2. to see the benefit of Right to Play programs in person and return home as better spokespeople, fundraisers and advocates.

For five days, we travelled across the small, vibrant country and met with Right to Play staff, school principals, coaches, teachers, parents, government officials and, of course, thousands and thousands of children. (Due to war, genocide, and the AIDS epidemic, three-quarters of the population is under 24.) The children were all eager to get their picture taken, touch our white skin, blow us kisses and often chased after our jeep yelling "umusungu" (which means white person).

After returning home to Canada, many have asked me if I spent my whole trip playing soccer. Most Right to Play games are directly educational and even involve a discussion session where the children enthusiastically answer the coaches questions on take home messages (as seen above). So, I didn't play a single game of soccer but instead learned about malaria prevention, sexual health, making good decisions, etc.

Most Inspiring Moment? The most inspiring meetings were with the coaches who are trying to do so much with so little resources. My life has been made richer in so many ways by the many different coaches throughout my childhood--volunteers, teachers and professionals. Coaches are the key for RTP as well and they are so dedicated. It was great to share this experience with Helen as we both had the same emotional reaction.

There were always laughs when Helen and I tried to explain (and show using our smartphones) bobsleigh and halfpipe skiing to the coaches. The best understood explanation that one of our translators came up with was "ice race car driving" and "ice skate boarding.”

A lush hillside neighbourhood outside of Kigali.

A lush hillside neighbourhood outside of Kigali.

Encouraging female inclusion in sports and as active members in communities is a major focus for Right to Play worldwide. The Rwandese men that we spoke with were as excited as the women about their strides in gender equity. A coach and a student show off the medals won by female athletes at their rural school.

What will be your lasting memory? Some people said this trip would change my perception of the world. As I spent four years living in Ecuador, I saw abject poverty every day and I volunteered through programs in my school (at an orphanage and play programs for the children of the garbage pickers--they literally lived on a garbage dump). However, Rwanda had an impact on my psyche that I can't quite explain--the images, the people, the few stories we heard about 1994 (year of the genocide). So the answer is: the Rwandans and their optimism, hope and pride in making their country a better place, even though they experienced unimaginable horrors and have ongoing desperate challenges. There is something to be learned from them.

Who can get involved? You can get involved by donating or joining a local RTP group (they exist in universities around the world) to raise money and awareness.

Though Right to Play started as a Canadian not-for-profit organization (and now exist all over the world), all the RTP national programs are run by the people living in the countries/communities. I think Right To Play programs worked so well in Rwanda because the staff, coaches and teachers felt ownership of the program and its successes, and added their own cultural twists to the games, activities and events.

After we played a game focusing on AIDS education, a group who had integrated acrobatics into their RTP program, put on a very impressive performance for us.

A boy in a rural village shows off his homemade soccer ball, made from banana leaves and garbage.

Many of the games we participated in were health focused. This game taught the importance of water and water safety.

Very Last words? Keep your eyes open for a special Roz G/Scott Sports/Right to Play project being announced this January!

Photos by Roz Groenewoud, Helen Upperton, Stephanie Buryk and Ariel Grange.