The power of the iCats fellowship hit me right away. My first assignment – literally – was to conduct site visits with members of the streetfootballworld network in Nairobi, Kenya. I spent a Sunday afternoon in late January with Enouce Ndeche, the tall, soft-spoken founder and director of Vijana Amani Pamoja (VAP). As Enouce told me about his experiences growing up in the very slum he now works in, my heart sank as we slowly drove past massive piles of waste and sickly herons searching for food. Yet even on a Sunday, the modest VAP field office was bustling with activity: the dirt floor “board room” crammed with young teen boys discussing how they would fight drugs in the neighborhood, and Enouce’s two program managers well-prepared with an Excel presentation for me.

VAP uses football (soccer) to reach at-risk youth from the Nairobi slums. Their core HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum uses the sport the kids love and words they understand, spoken by people they respect. Each intervention is tailored according to pre-assessments of the kids’ knowledge on a variety of topics related to sexual and reproductive health, and the impact of the program is carefully measured by post-assessments. The interventions are fun for the kids and involve skill-building football drills and exercises led by trained coaches. The curriculum is being translated to slang English and Swahili for best possible comprehension. The staff repeatedly expressed their commitment to improve and grow the program to reach more children.

Opal, one of the program managers, got more excited with every question I asked and every note I took. He described his motivation in this way: “All my life HIV has been like my best friend – country or city – never far from my side. With this job, I keep myself safe and transform my friends, too. I can’t find deep satisfaction anywhere else.”

Later that day, Enouce kindly offered to take me to the Maasai artisan market in downtown Nairobi. It was Sunday and I knew he had a wife and baby at home, so I hesitated. A big admirer of hand-made local treasures from just about anywhere, in the end I couldn’t turn this down. I had just met him, but I felt totally comfortable and content as we wandered through the stalls. Enouce patiently translated for me as we negotiated for beautiful bronze earrings and beaded flip flops.

That evening I returned to the hotel truly uplifted and energized by the warmth, talent and motivation of the folks from Vijana Amani Pamoja. Any doubts I might have had about whether the iCats fellowship was the right decision? Long gone.