My transformational journey to Rwanda

Heather O'Reilly leads Rwandan kids in an impromptu soccer warm-up. Courtesy of Heather O'Reilly

Heather O'Reilly is a member of the USA women's soccer team. As an athlete ambassador for Right To Play, she traveled to Rwanda.

I have always loved working with children. Their enthusiasm lights a fire in me and gives perspective and meaning to what I do as an athlete.

I have been very fortunate in my athletic career; growing up in suburban New Jersey, I had organized teams to play on, with uniforms and coaches who cared about me. Sports taught me self-confidence and discipline. I learned how to work with others and set goals. Sports also gave me a college scholarship, an education and opportunity.

The power of play is immense.

That's why getting involved with Right to Play -- a global organization that uses the transformative power of play to educate and empower children to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease -- was important to me. Right to Play's vision is to create a healthy and safe world through the power of sports. Last week, I traveled with Right to Play as an athlete ambassador to Rwanda. I will forever be changed by what I saw, the wonderful people I met and the incredible transformation that I saw through play.

Sunday Nov. 11

I arrived before some of the other athlete ambassadors -- including swimmer Natalie Coughlin, water polo player Heather Petri and sprinter Allyson Felix -- due to travel, and attended an event organized by Rwanda's Ministry of Sport. I met with about 30 local Rwandan track and field athletes, all male, between the ages of 19 and 25.

After they competed, we talked about Right to Play's mission. It was probably pretty intriguing for them to sit in front of an American female professional soccer player, and listen to me speak about inspiring others. But they were a very respectful audience and asked some honest and open questions. One of the guys asked, "How can you still be a woman if you are an athlete? Can you still have babies?" At first, I thought he was referring to having time to do both. I excitedly started telling him about my teammate Christie Rampone, who after having two children continues to not only play, but to dominate on the U.S. national team.

But then I realized he was asking if it is physically possible to train and still have babies. I assured him it is not only possible, but that girls can play the same way boys do. Although I was taken back a bit by the question, I am glad he asked it, because for him it was an honest question. It was an interesting insight into the gender perceptions that can occur in traditional societies. I hope my message was powerful. I think it was cool for them to see a confident, strong female athlete, with my husband (Dave came on the trip too) in the back of the room supporting me.

Monday Nov. 12

The second day in the field was emotional. In the morning, we visited children (and we got the most amazing welcoming song and dance -- it made me tear up!) in the capital city, Kigali. Right to Play partners with its sister group, CARELIFE Association, which works with street children and orphans and gives them a safe place to play.

Right to Play researches which problems are affecting communities the most, and designs games with those needs in mind. Sports are use as tools for learning in four areas: basic education and child development; health promotion and disease prevention; conflict resolution and peace building; and community development and participation.

I was assigned to a teenage group, where the focus of the play was prevention of HIV/AIDS. The actual exercise itself is hard to explain, but like with most of Right to Play's games, the Reflect-Connect-Apply session that followed was the most powerful part. After the game, we talked with the teens about what they did, how it connects to their life and how they can apply what they learned in the future. It was amazing to hear the teenagers talk openly about sex and exchange thoughts.

In the afternoon, our group visited the Rwandan genocide museum. In 1994, Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides in human history, with an estimated one million people being killed in three months. This has obviously taken an immense toll on Rwandan society, but the country is looking forward, not back.

Tuesday Nov. 13

First, we met the staff of Right to Play Rwanda. The local staff is an integral part of what makes the program successful. Although Right to Play's headquarters are in Canada, the group teaches its methodology to local coaches, who know the children and understand the physical and emotional needs of the community.

After meeting them, we made the three-hour drive from Kigali to Rubavu, a much more rural community in the hills. The drive was incredibly eye opening. We saw hundreds of people walking on the side of the sole paved road. Women and children were carrying heavy loads of water, potato sacks and heaps of bamboo and sugar shoots on their heads. In Kigali we had seen many people in need, but it was even more apparent in the rural areas. We saw struggle. But we also saw beautiful smiles.

We first visited the Kanembwe School, where Right to Play has provided a basketball/volleyball court and new latrines and wash equipment. I made a lot of friends, although they probably thought I was a little crazy! I put some children through an impromptu soccer warm-up, and a very different version of Simon Says. It was awesome.

Then we traveled to another primary school, where we heard testimonials from teachers and students about how Right to Play is working. Their stories were amazing. One handicapped boy told of how before the program started working with the school, he never felt included and had dropped out. He now goes to school and is proud that he has done well on his exams. Play has given him a chance.

Wednesday Nov. 14

My final afternoon in Rwanda was my favorite. We visited the Kanyundo School in the lush, green, rolling hills. The focus of the visit was on child-protection activities. The students put on skits about different kinds of child abuse. Examples included children being make to work in the fields instead of going to school; parents not taking children to see a doctor; and parents making children do dangerous labor. The interesting and amazing part: The children performed in front of a group of parents! It was so interesting to see this "roundtable conversation" play out. Coaches, teachers, children and parents were all part of the conversation. Afterward, I spoke briefly about what the children had learned about leadership and confidence through Right to Play. I met a special friend who wouldn't let go of my hand the whole day. Even as our car was pulling away, she ran alongside it. I was sad to leave her.

My experience in Rwanda was very special. I met some amazing people and heard incredible stories of resilience. We can all get so wrapped up in our own lives, our own superficiality, and become focused on things that really don't matter. What matters is helping and inspiring others. Sport has given me so much, but play is powerful beyond belief!