Fun and games deliver a life and death message

Fun and games deliver a life and death message

Credit - Jessamyn Mayher

Sarah Kate Noftsinger, a former local soccer star, is working in South Africa as director of sports programming for TRIAD, an AIDS awareness group.

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Saving one child at a time - A former local soccer star works in South Africa for an AIDS prevention program.

Currently : Director of sports programming for TRIAD Trust, a philanthropic organization striving to reduce the incidence of AIDS and HIV in southern Africa

Age : 29

Hometown : Richmond

Attended : Mills Godwin High School and Wake Forest University

On the field: A standout soccer player, Noftsinger earned all-state, all-region and all-academic distinction in each of her final three seasons at Mills Godwin (below). . . . She appeared in 81 matches, 70 as a starter, as a midfielder at Wake Forest (above). . . . Second-team all-ACC as a senior. . . . Became the first Wake Forest woman drafted by a pro team when chosen by the New York Power in the 2002 WUSA Draft. . . . Was signed by the WUSA's Washington Freedom as a reserve-squad player at the midpoint of the 2002 season. . . . Played on the Freedom's 2003 WUSA championship team. . . . Served four seasons as an assistant coach and highly regarded recruiter in the women's soccer program at Stanford University.

Quotable : "My faith has become stronger. I truly believe it happened for a reason; that it was part of His plan for me. I wouldn't be where I am today had I not hurt my neck." - Noftsinger, on the injury that led her to TRIAD in 2008.

TRIAD Trust, based in Boston, is a nonprofit philanthropic organization seeking to reduce the prevalence of AIDS/HIV in communities in and around the Nkomazi Region of South Africa. TRIAD (Training to Reduce the Incidence of AIDS-related Death) uses participation in sports, the performing arts, photography and filmmaking to deliver messages of prevention, empowerment and healthy behavior to the region's children. For more information, call (617) 716-4357 or visit

Rosemary Noftsinger says compassion always has been dyed deeply into her daughter Sarah Kate's psychological fabric.

Sarah Kate, said Rosemary, was this sort of child: "If you picked her up to hold her to try to make her feel better about something, she'd reach around and pat you on the back to try to make you feel better."

Today, Sarah Kate is offering much more than a pat on the back.

Noftsinger, a former standout soccer midfielder at Mills Godwin High School and Wake Forest University, is working as the director of sports programming for TRIAD Trust, a philanthropic organization seeking to reduce the incidence of AIDS and HIV in rural southern Africa.

Education, awareness and empowerment are TRIAD'S tools of choice. Noftsinger's mission is to use sports -- specifically soccer and basketball -- to encourage not only teamwork and wholesome competition but also healthy lifestyles, self-esteem and responsibility among the children of this disease-ravaged area.

"The thing that makes [TRIAD] unique is, I truly believe there is a realistic hope for success," Noftsinger said in an e-mail from her outpost in the Nkomazi Region of South Africa, near that nation's borders with Mozambique and Swaziland. "It's not like we're trying to save the world. It's more like we're trying to save one person at a time."

Noftsinger, 29, said she is driven by two philosophies, one pragmatic, the other idealistic.

The first: "I've always believed that before you can have a dream, you have to have the power to make that dream come true."

TRIAD, she said, has supplied the power.

The second: "I'm convinced that if you want something badly enough, through honesty, hard work, self-discipline and education, anything is possible."

Her endeavor is challenging, both physically and emotionally.

In another day and time, the Nkomazi Region would have been regarded as cursed. TRIAD officials believe between 40 and 50 percent of the population is HIV positive. Studies indicate that unemployment typically hovers at or above 60 percent. Some say the region is home to between 5,000 and 6,000 orphans.

"No day is ever perfect," Noftsinger said. "I suppose it's a lot like golf. You always strive for that perfect round, but will there ever be a perfect round? I'm not sure. But I can tell you this: I'm going to keep trying. I'm truly happy where I am right now."

TRIAD launched its awareness-through-sports program in March 2007, with two soccer teams: one for boys, one for girls. Now there are at least 126 youth teams, with more than 2,500 participants, in the region. Noftsinger, who visits South Africa four times a year, offered a vivid description: a combination of AAU basketball and Richmond Strikers soccer with ageand gender-specific life lessons woven through and around each opportunity to play.

Noftsinger said the response of her target audience, the children who inhabit this cruelly afflicted corner of Africa, is gratifying. These children were born into a desolate world, a world in which hope of any sort is at best scarce. But when given the opportunity to play ball, they run and jump and laugh like children anywhere.

"It's an amazing thing to see," Noftsinger said.

Amazing? Yes. Surprising? Not so much. Noftsinger, a former WUSA player and Stanford assistant coach, said the appeal of sports to children and young adults is universal. Thus, she believes the Boston-based TRIAD organization made an inspired decision when it chose sports as one of several key platforms -- others include the performing arts, photography and film -- from which to educate about AIDS and HIV.

Noftsinger called friendly competition "a stellar medium through which to deliver our message and earn [at-risk youngsters'] trust."

She elaborated: "Sport provides an incredibly safe learning environment. No matter the language, no matter the religious beliefs -- the playing field is, and should be, a safe place. When kids step onto the field or the court, they leave their worries behind. They escape the problems they face every day. No matter what part of the world you're in, no matter that you're rich or poor -- the competitive playing field is a safe haven."

Noftsinger downplayed her role in TRIAD's efforts.

"The real work," she said, "is done by the local leaders. I merely provide guidance, support and resources. These incredibly talented local leaders -- they're the ones who are sustaining the program. Not me."

TRIAD Executive Director Brooke Wurst didn't disagree. But nor did she permit Noftsinger's humility to run unchecked. When Noftsinger first joined the program as a volunteer, Wurst said, TRIAD "had arrived at a precarious place in our development. Our impact in the community was growing more quickly than our existing resources could manage."

In addition to possessing "a genuine compassion" for the children TRIAD is attempting to reach, Wurst said, Noftsinger displayed the knack that all leaders share: the ability to get things done.

Said Wurst in an e-mail from South Africa: "She was immediately able to turn chaos into order. I saw her working in the field with the kids and the coaches, and I knew she was what we needed to continue making progress."

Noftsinger and TRIAD might never have discovered one another had Noftsinger not suffered a debilitating neck injury -- a ruptured disk -- while attempting a header during a goalkeeper's drill in 2006. Surgery and 2½ years of rehabilitation followed. Noftsinger called it "the hardest, most mentally challenging period of my life."

Here circumstance -- or destiny, perhaps -- intervened. Noftsinger knew many members of the U.S. Women's National Team program from her stint in the WUSA and her years as a top-flight collegian. Some of those players were TRIAD volunteers. When a sudden call to training camp prevented the members of the National Team from fulfilling their TRIAD commitment, Noftsinger was recommended as a replacement. She enlisted in 2008.

"I haven't looked back since," she said.

Contact Vic Dorr Jr. at (804) 649-6442 or .


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