BU News Service
Jake De Vries
On a muggy, sweltering summer day in Ngaoundéré, Rachel Bloznalis stood in front of a group of Cameroonian villagers, eager to learn and play soccer on their lumpy, red clay field.
Bloznalis, a junior defender for the Boston University Women’s Soccer team, journeyed to Cameroon in May to volunteer and coach soccer as part of Coaches Across Continents, a non-governmental organization that aims to develop social impact through sport in low-income countries.
CAC uses soccer to educate people in developing nations about issues including gender equality, conflict resolution, and health and wellness. The organization travels to nations, such as Cameroon, to help citizens solve these issues and create sustainable change in their communities.
“We feel soccer is a great vehicle for change,” Adam Burgess, CAC’s sustainability strategist, said. “When our groups go into a local community, they are met with blank stares when we go to a classroom. When we come with a soccer ball, the whole community gathers around us, allowing us to start these difficult conversations.”
In September 2014, a year before her trip, Bloznalis suffered from compartment syndrome, a painful, exercise-induced condition that caused muscle and nerve swelling in her legs, prohibiting her ability to run and forcing her to take a medical redshirt her sophomore season.
She underwent surgery, and spent more than six months rehabilitating her legs leading into the summer.
“Since I wasn’t able to make an impact on the field, I wanted to make a difference somehow,” Bloznalis said. “Playing soccer has always been how I’ve made an impact, so having the opportunity to travel and make a different kind of impact was exciting for me.”
She served as a volunteer assistant coach in Cameroon, creating daily lesson plans of soccer games that served as microcosms for social problems in the community. In the cities of Ngaoundéré and Kumba, they focused on female empowerment. In Dschang, they stressed HIV awareness and prevention strategies.
One of their games aimed to teach the Dschang villagers about HIV transmission and protection. They played “condom tag,” where coaches separated players into an infected group, a healthy group, and a protector group — the condoms. The infected players tried to kick the ball, representing HIV, at the healthy players. The “condoms” were tasked with using their bodies as a shield to protect the healthy players.
“As a 20-year-old girl, teaching 40-year-old men about things that I’ve understood my whole life was really hard to conceptualize,” Bloznalis explained. “But it was cool to see that through the universal language of soccer, we could help them understand a life-skill as important as preventing HIV.”
Nancy Feldman, head women’s soccer coach at BU, said she was nervous Bloznalis might not have the necessary resources in Cameroon to continue her recovery. Bloznalis had been back on the soccer field for just three months before she left for Cameroon.
Feldman trusted Bloznalis would take care of herself and hoped she would return from Africa refreshed and with a new outlook on soccer and life.
Feldman and Bloznalis were rewarded, as Bloznalis shined in her return to the field in the fall, earning All-Patriot League First Team honors and leading BU to its third consecutive Patriot League Championship.
“It’s not for everybody,” Feldman said. “But it’s a wonderful, selfless, volunteer experience. When you’ve gone through a really difficult injury, sometimes getting out of Dodge to clear your head and gain some perspective can be really powerful. Maybe it was just what the doctor ordered for her.”