Grassroot Ambassador Kia McNeill Shares Her Coach’s Story

Sport/Team

Professional Women’s Soccer – Philadelphia Independence

Hometown

Avon, Connecticut

Alma Mater

Boston College.  Currently pursuing my MBA at Boston College in my off-season.

One person on your support team

I would have to say my family but that would be too cliché so I am going to say one important person on my support team is my twin brother Jared.  He has literally been there for me from the beginning and I have a great deal of respect for his knowledge and opinions on matters.  He is someone that I can confide in and he is supportive in whatever capacity I need him to be.

Tell us why HIV/AIDS is important to you

Getting involved with The Grassroots Project was important to me because I had an uncle who passed away from AIDS in 1995.  At that time, information about the disease was limited, and that lack of real knowledge harshly stigmatized anyone diagnosed with it.  I’m ashamed to admit that there were some members of my family who cut all ties with my uncle. Suddenly, this man who had given his family nothing but love was treated as some sort of an outcast.  I was very young at the time so I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on, but now that I am older I can look back at this situation as something that I wish I could have changed.  Obviously the past is the past and all I can do to make peace with the situation and focus on what I can do in the present to educate others on this disease.  I think the best way to do this is to use something I am passionate about (soccer) and use this game to help bridge the communication between the subjects.  The game of soccer is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world and enjoyed by millions regardless of race, religion, economic background, or age.  HIV/AIDS is a disease that also has no prejudices in terms of who is affected, but contrary to soccer it is frowned upon and not as well known in the forefront of the public eye.  As a current professional soccer player, and former collegiate coach and player, I have been given so much. Now, I want to continue to mature and one day find myself in a position where I can help to influence others and give back to the community.

Why being an ambassador is important to you…

In the summer of 2010 I was presented with an opportunity to go to South Africa during the World Cup to work with the Team Up Exchange, a project of The Grassroot Project that united DC students with students from South Africa to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.  At this particular event, I was asked to assist a group of 20 children: half from Washington, D.C., the other half from Soweto, as they worked together to form a global HIV/AIDS awareness project.  Incredibly, these two groups, from different backgrounds, from, one might even say, different worlds, were drawn together by the game of soccer.

This unique experience obviously hit very close to home for me because of my uncle who passed from the disease.  I saw my time in South Africa as opportunity to further educate myself and others and, ultimately, give me some peace of mind for what had happened to my uncle.

At first, it was difficult to understand how soccer could bridge the gap between these two groups, and in turn raise discussion about a topic that most children were not familiar or comfortable with discussing.  I even found myself reluctant to share my own personal experience.  However, using soccer as a teaching tool not only allowed us all to loosen up, but it empowered us as individuals and as a group. It wasn’t long before we had drawn so close together by the sport, that we thought nothing of being ourselves, of expressing our thoughts and feelings, of telling our stories.  We worked to convey the idea that soccer could be an outlet and a way to bond with other like-minded individuals who may be facing similar challenges; and we also made sure to emphasize that, whether it be through art, athletics, or political action, there are a wealth of other outlets through which one could achieve the same outcome.

Eventually, in order to breach the topic, and to show these children that they should never be afraid to express themselves, I took it upon myself to open up and tell them about my family’s confrontation with AIDS/HIV.  Not only was it a feeling of relief to tell my story, but I also saw the affect that it had on others who were there and may have been in a similar situation.  My story complemented with the experience with The Grassroot Project gave us all strength to express our feelings and ultimately feel empowered by the knowledge we had going forward.  By the week’s end, each child had an action plan in place: something that they would pledge to do in order to educate their communities to combat the ignorance spread of AIDS/HIV.

This was the most rewarding professional experience I have ever had in my life.  In a way, I’ve never been more thankful to my work in soccer than I was to have it lead to this moment, where my past weaknesses could offer these children strength, and where the courage of these children could assuage the pain I’d felt for so long.  I remember leaving South Africa with a feeling of hope: hope for the changes that I felt I could continue to make, through whatever means possible; and hope for greater changes to come in a next generation of young leaders who will approach the world with the information, honesty, and compassion that many of us were not so fortunate to have.  This is why being an ambassador for the cause means so much to me.

Share one message w the DC youth.

When thinking of what advice I’d give, I was trying to think of what piece of knowledge I had that was the key to my success.  And while there are several things that have led me where I am, I think the most prominent is the fact that I was always raised to believe I could do anything and be anybody I wanted as long as I put in the work to get there.  The pursuit of any dream can be hard, but stick to it.  Enjoy the experience.  Work hard, but laugh harder.  Don’t have any regrets, and always walk away knowing that you gave your all.  With any profession you decide to pursue there will be difficulties.  There will be peer pressures, there will be people who doubt your abilities, and there will be distractions. Stay focused on what it is you want to accomplish, and surround yourself with people who have your best interest in mind. Decisions will be difficult. Sometimes people think the road to success means to head down road A or road B. But from personal experience I can tell you that there will be times where things aren’t so clear cut; you may have to have the courage to go out there and beat your OWN PATH to get to where you want to go.  I can’t stress this enough, put in the work to make your dreams a reality.  Whatever dream that is.  I can tell you, getting there is not going to be easy, but I can promise you it’ll be worth it.