Senior soccer player Beth Ellinport joins eighth grade gym class at a public charter school in Northeast D.C. every Monday, where she fuses the class with mental health education.
It’s been three years since Ellinport joined the Grassroot Project – a group of local alumni that train student athletes to educate middle school students on a healthy lifestyle – as a freshman. During the classes, Ellinport said she leads the students through games like boundary basketball, where students learn how to distinguish boundaries in relationships.
She said she also occasionally teaches a sixth grade class at another charter school in D.C., where students focus on pursuing nutritious diets as they develop through middle school.
“We were with sixth graders learning about nutrition,” Ellinport said. “And so we played a game called scramble where we get to learn about what choices we have as we’re in middle school.”
She said she has helped teach middle school students about each of the project’s three main focuses – mental health, sexual health and nutrition – and plans to work for the organization until she graduates this spring.
The Grassroot Project was founded by Tyler Spencer, a former rower at Georgetown, along with 39 other Georgetown athletes in 2009 as an eight-week HIV prevention program to teach students about sexual health. The project launched in 2009 as HIV rates in D.C. led the country with a 3 percent positivity rate – a figure that has dropped by 85 percent as of 2020.
“I know that it was way more successful and way more popular than Tyler thought,” Ellinport said. “And it was kind of his senior project at Georgetown, and he just kind of saw that there’s no health programs in D.C. middle schools.”
GW celebrated 10 years of partnership with the organization in April 2019, with more than 351 students volunteering for the program. GW’s presence in the program has since expanded as student athletes like Ellinport recommend incoming freshmen and sophomores join the organization.
Ellinport said GW student-athlete involvement differs each year as every member finds different ways to impact the community. She said more student athletes got involved in the program during the COVID-19 pandemic when it turned online because the remote setup could better accommodate their schedules with less traveling.
D.C. Health started requiring one year of health and physical education in middle schools in 2017. The Grassroot Project has trained student athletes as health educators to help schools attain this requirement through weekly volunteering during a semester, which involves teaching one-hour courses on mental, physical and sexual health during physical education classes.
The courses are made of 30 game-based physical activities that carry “distinct” health messages while helping schools meet the physical education requirements and drive up health literacy. Ellinport said the practices work to increase physical activity and teach students to lead a well-balanced lifestyle.
“The whole point of the program is to get these college athletes into these schools so that they have a mentor to look up to who may have played a sport they want to play and just encourage them,” Ellinport said, “And the whole style is you’re a coach, and then you have practices, and each practice is like a fun game learning about a specific topic.”
The organization determines their plans for lessons about adolescent health and local caregivers based on conversations with local D.C. community members that can add diverse perspectives, according to their website. The site states students who complete the program develop health literacy and become more comfortable with topics of mental, physical and sexual health.
She said the program will expand and rebrand at a national level in the coming years, starting with a new branch in Philadelphia to connect inner-city middle schools with universities in the area.
“I can probably dedicate a little more time to it because I won’t be playing soccer,” Ellinport said. “I’ll definitely stick around and be a donor.”