Organized sports can be much more than a pastime. They can also be a way to teach leadership skills, encourage inclusiveness, and build confidence. In the right situation, sports can even be a tool for social change.
It was with that mindset that Trooper Johnson and Carlie Cook traveled to Morocco and Algeria as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Envoy program to promote inclusion and transform attitudes that marginalize people with disabilities.
Trooper is a former Paralympian who now resides in California. He serves as the Youth Sports Program Coordinator for the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP), is the Head Coach for the USA Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team, and a member of the NWBA High Performance Committee. Prior to pursuing graduate school in Massachusetts, Carlie coached youth basketball teams through the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association near Chicago and played at the collegiate level for the University of Illinois.
Sports Envoys are current and former American professional athletes and coaches who go overseas in coordination with U.S. embassies to lead youth clinics, coaching workshops, and team-building activities.
They share lessons learned on and off the court about the importance of education, inclusion, and respect for diversity.
In Morocco, Trooper and Carlie worked with a nascent basketball program that served children, including young people in wheelchairs and with cognitive disabilities. In addition to youth clinics attended by hundreds, they taught drills to the coaches, helped them to train others in working with people with disabilities, and instructed them on the game’s rules and best practices.
Trooper was very impressed by everyone he met, especially the staff at an NGO called TIBU Maroc. “There was an amazing set of coaches. They were super engaged and really interested in working with us.”
In Algeria, Trooper and Carlie worked with the coaches who were training the national basketball team and met with several people who were interested in using sports as a way to empower people with disabilities - including the director of the national Paralympic team!
Carlie says her favorite thing about the trip was seeing people change their perceptions about what disabled youth can accomplish.
“Sport was a tool to help promote social change in these countries. Too often, individuals with disabilities are not seen as productive members of society and are denied the rights to receive an education or go out in public.”
Yet, in the short time she was there, Carlie began to see a shift in perceptions.
“It was extremely empowering to see the confidence of the people we worked with change. It was amazing to see what a little basketball can do for an individual.”
Trooper was thrilled to know wheelchair basketball programs could give young people greater access to essential services. “We were told one of the largest reasons kids don’t continue their education is because they don’t have access to school. Once they reach a certain age and can’t be carried, the schools aren’t accessible.” But when they’re able to play sports, and the teams draw spectators to schools and other facilities, it gives nonprofits and governments a new incentive to serve them.
Carlie says the U.S. Department of State did a great job finding accessible hotels, restaurants and other accommodations. But not all the sports arenas were fully accessible. That made her reflect on her life at home.
“It was a reminder of how fortunate we are in the United States and other developed countries. We have laws that require people to make their buildings accessible and that protect our right to an education. Of course we still face issues and we still fight battles, but compared to where people with disabilities in many parts of the world are living, we’re very advanced.”