‘Survivor’ winner gives kick to AIDS fight

Karen Goulart

A return to books and homework is still days away for some, but about 100 South Shore youngsters showed up at Hingham High School on Wednesday eager to learn.

These lessons, however, didn’t take place in a classroom, but on the soccer field.

Members of the Galway Rovers Soccer Club and Hingham High School varsity soccer teams gathered at the field to be part of “Survivor” favorite Ethan Zohn’s Dribble 2008.

Zohn found fame and fortune as the winner of “Survivor: Africa,” the reality show’s third season, in 2001-02.

But before his time on TV, Zohn, a Lexington native, played professional soccer on several American teams. It was his turn with Zimbabwe’s Highlands Football Club that brought him face to face with Africa’s AIDS crisis. He saw overcrowded graveyards and he experienced the loss of a friend and teammate to the disease.

He has since put his celebrity and skills to work in creating Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing African youngsters with the education, life skills and support to live HIV-free.

This year, Grassroot Soccer United was formed to raise awareness among and gain support from soccer-playing young people around the world with the aim of fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Dribble 2008 began Aug. 20, when Zohn dribbled a soccer ball out of Gillette Stadium. He’ll keep dribbling all the way to Washington for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, breaking a world record with his feat and spreading his message along the way.

On Wednesday night, he presented a soccer clinic that included drills as well as various games that Grassroots volunteers play with children in Africa to impart lessons about difficult topics like stigmatization and making healthy life choices.

The youngsters were invited to sign up on the Grassroot Soccer Web site to help raise money for the effort and connect with a “teammate” in Africa.

At the close of the session, the players joined Zohn in a lap around the field, becoming part of the possible record-breaking dribble.

On the sidelines, Tricia Zimbone-Ashe of Hingham said her daughter, Carly, 12, was excited to be part of the clinic.

“The message they’re getting is so inspiring,” Zimbone-Ashe said. “It’s all about living a healthy life.”

Karen Sugar of Scituate was happy that son Peter, 11, and daughter Annelies, 9, were gaining an understanding of the problems facing some kids their own age.

“Ethan seems like such a positive role model with a positive message,” Sugar said. “They’re trying to spread that message around the world and I think that’s awesome.”

As Zohn packed up and prepared for his next stop, he said he hoped he was able to make an impression.

“I think everyone here had a good time, had fun and maybe we opened their eyes a bit,” Zohn said. “Even if just the general message sticks ... you never know; maybe one of these kids will go on to college and be the next great AIDS doctor.”

For more information about Grassroot Soccer and Dribble 2008, go to www.grassrootsoccer.org.

Reach Karen Goulart atkgoulart@ledger.com.