The Inner Struggle of Combating AIDS

As I reflect on my last 2 weeks in South Africa, I feel as though I am in a continuous state of opposition, where various forces are constantly at war with each other.

-The beauty of the countryside vs. poverty-stricken villages

-The hope of a better future vs. the despair of the ever-present reality of AIDS

-Our dispersal of knowledge vs. generations of ignorance

-The need for behavior change for oneself and the community vs. self-satisfying survival mentality

I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of young women one morning, and I was struck by their inability to think creatively or progressively about their future. Simple questions went unanswered . . . What would you like to be? _____(response: blank stare) What would you like to change about your situation? _____(response: blank stare) It was as if their coping mechanism was to limit themselves to the essentials of their existence so not to be disappointed by the possibility of something greater.

Many people have cautioned me not to get disheartened by the challenges of such a devastating disease like HIV/AIDS. They warn me that the rewards are rarely visible, and the challenge is increasingly taxing. So when my hope of influence collides with the dire reality of the situation and there is no concrete, quantifiable results for our efforts; the inevitable question arises, is the glass half full or half empty?

When it comes to AIDS, optimism and inspiration are currently a one way street. They seem to only come from the outside. Our challenge is to create leaders, where no role models exist, to invoke behavior change, where the incentive is still unclear to them, and to provide hope where only blank stares reside. Until people are capable of generating hope and solutions on their own, despair is not an option for any of us. The glass must always be seen as half full, even if there is only one drop at the bottom. This is not done with disillusionment of the problem or progress, but rather with the understanding that those with the ability to foresee a better future must continue to be the eyes for the ones blinded by their own pain and hopelessness.

(please visit if you want more information on the organization or how to help)

A Time to Care: World AIDS Day 2008

Before heading back to South Africa for the next 2 weeks, I stopped for one last coffee at Starbucks, and there it was… in big (RED) letters, a bold reminder of why I was going in the first place: World AIDS Day, December 1.

As I reluctantly paid for my $4 latte, I was also reminded about the tough economic times we find ourselves in, and I couldn’t help but wonder about some correlation between the two. Will our worry about self-sustainability desensitize us to the needs of others, or will these hard times draw us closer together and unite us by our compassion for one another?

Lately I have answered a lot of questions not about the “wheres” or the “whats” of my trip, but, surprisingly, the “whys.” WHY travel to S. Africa? WHY feel so strongly about combating AIDS? The insinuation was this: Why even care at all?

The answer to that is two-fold. First, my faith calls me to display kindness and love for others. Secondly, I believe that the greatest return on an investment does not lie in stocks and bonds, but rather in investing time in the lives of others. This is true for parents with their children, coaches with their players, teachers with their students, and a random group of doctors, athletes and artists with a village of people just south of the Swaziland border.

Time is one of the greatest commodities we all have, and it is a challenge to us all to invest it wisely.

I carry mixed emotions as I head back to the Mpumalanga region I visited this time last year with Triad Trust. I am excited to be reunited with the boys that took part in our basketball program and anxious to share the knowledge I have gained this past year. But I’m also saddened by the statistical reality that with a 50% HIV rate in this area, not all the familiar faces will be present upon my return.

I wrote last year about the grassroots approach we’ve taken to create HIV awareness, encourage testing and teach leadership and life skills through an all-encompassing platform of sport, drama, journalism, photography and music. Although there is no way to quantify our impact on this trip, I am confident that time will tell.

Race, Politics and Change

Growing up in the mid-west, I was raised a good Christian girl where everyone looked like me, dressed like me, and as far as I knew was Republican like me. Diversity was not something I experienced until my freshman year at Notre Dame. My education extended beyond my basic academic classes: as my African American teammates explained to me why they can have short straight hair one day and long micro-braids the next, that “whip” actually meant my car, and introduced me to numerous musical artists that I had never heard of before.

Admittedly, I was the naïve of the naïve, but I was also raised in a home where I was taught to love and not judge, that we are all created equal, that race and culture might be some thing that makes us different from each other, but never something that should divide us . As I began to develop strong friendships with teammates of other races, I sought to see life from their perspective and was often surprised at what I saw. The looks or comments that some of my teammates received, the lack of service when we would walk into a certain store or restaurant, or the obvious stereotypes that would be made. My education didn’t stop there, as I saw people that I respected of various ethnicities act out of ignorance because of race and I also experienced discrimination of my own at times when people were not prepared to accept the lone white girl in the group.

I speak of race for obvious reason; our nation has taken a monumental step in this area by electing its first biracial president. This election challenged us all in a way that we have never before experienced. Republicans for the first time voting for a Democrat, young voters becoming passionately involved in politics, Religious organizations struggling to choose their alliances, and for the first time an African American candidate has crossed over the racial bridge that has divided us for so long.

What I have appreciated the most about this election was the on-going dialogue that took place. Granted the dialogue could get heated at times: as we will not always agree on issues of abortion, health care and national security. Success is not always measured by the level of agreement, sometimes it lies in the act of discussion and the understanding that ensues from that.

It was through these conversations that I learned about the tax challenges my friends who own their own small business experience, that not all devoted Christian women are pro-life, the intricacies of what people believe is wrong with our social security, health-care, and welfare systems, and what those who are actually risking their lives for our country believe is the best exit strategy from Iraq. At the end of the day we will always vote according to the priority of our values, and we should hold fast to those values and fight for them, for that is the beauty of democracy—we have a voice! With that voice, let us keep this dialogue open, and let the conversation go on even now after the election has come to a close.

Abraham Lincoln notably stated that we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people, therefore it is our responsibility (as the people) to define not only what type of country we are but also what direction we are going. Both candidates spoke extensively on the issue of “change.” Change does not rest solely on the shoulders of the president and those elected to office, true change happens in the hearts and minds of its people. What will you do these next four years to make our nation better? As America becomes increasingly more diverse, will we seek to understand those of a different race or culture? I challenge us all to not let the excitement and desire for a better future be something we experience once every four years, rather let it propel us to, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Pain in Patriotism

There are two things just about every house in The Heartland (Indiana) have hanging up: a basketball hoop and a flag. Raised as a good old country girl, patriotism was woven into my psyche as a child. As the words of Lee Greenwood’s song, I was always, “Proud to be an American . .”

Throughout the years my patriotism has shifted in some ways and deepened in others. What started out with the faithful recitation every morning of the “Pledge of Allegiance” in elementary school, was later augmented by my history classes and the stories of my grandfather and uncles who served in WWII and Vietnam, only to be deepened by the honor of representing my country in the Olympic Games in 2004. All of these events instilled in me an overwhelming sense of pride and love for our country and what it stands for—but over the last year my innocent paradigm has shifted as I learned, like many others, that there can be immense pain in patriotism.

A year and a half my elder, my sister, Rachel, was my rival and my best friend growing up. Upon our graduations from Notre Dame, I proceeded to enter the WNBA as she found her passion in life in the Army. She fell in love with the camaraderie, purpose and challenge she found there, first becoming and Arabic linguist and then proceeding on to become a Blackhawk pilot. As I was preparing for the 2006 WNBA Finals, my sister was also preparing for battle—only the real one.

For those who have had loved ones bravely lose their lives to protect our freedom, my heart goes out to you. Thankfully, my sister was not one of them. Physically she returned a few months later to be medically discharged with severe depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but my best friend, the sister, the daughter, the wife, and the mother are in essence still missing in action.

Over the last year and a half I have watched my sister battle an opponent far greater than one that I will ever face on the court—it is the one she faces every day in her mind. The anger, frustration, doubt, hopelessness and depression are a constant reality. Although this is an extremely personal matter to me, I write because I believe it is one worthy of discussion. Soldiers returning home with physical wounds or injuries are applauded and revered (and rightfully so), yet how are the 1 in 8 soldiers who suffer from PTSD received? There is a certain stigma related to mental illness, as if it is a sign of weakness that should be only discussed in secret, if at all. I write because these men and women deserve more than isolation and silence—their service and sacrifice demands our understanding! I write because I know the pain, and severe helplessness that family members feel. I write because we all have a part in reducing the stigma that keeps so many soldiers from even admitting their symptoms or seeking help.

Admittedly, over the last year, I went through a stage of selfishness, where my patriotism was challenged. I was angered by the condition my sister returned in and frustrated at the side-effects of her service. Over time, I realized that it was not my love for this country that was challenged, but rather my childish view of what that should look like . . . I now know there is as much pain as there is pride in patriotism!

Life in Latvia

Life in Latvia

Greetings from Riga, Latvia, a beautiful city in the Baltic region of Europe.  Ashamed of how little I knew about the country that was my home for the last two months, I took it upon myself to do a little research.  As I walked through the enchanting “Old Town” which reminded me a lot of Prague with the beautiful architecture and churches, I stumbled upon the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia—and hence my educational process began.

Latvia’s independence was ripped away by Russia in August 1939, due to the Hilter-Stalin pack.  I quickly realized that most of my knowledge of the 1940-1950s was focused on the happenings of WWII, because of the United States direct involvement, and I was ignorant of the oppression by the Soviet regime in this region.  Sadly, Latvia did not gain its independence from Russia until August 21,1991.  In the midst of persecution, oppression, and displacement, the Latvian people have impressively kept their language, culture, and heritage intact throughout the generations.

My history lesson proved to be two-fold, as quickly learned that in Latvia, the world’s most popular sport, soccer (aka: futbol) actually takes a back seat to basketball and hockey.  TTT Riga, the club I played for, dominated the Women’s Euroleague, winning 18 championships from 1960 to 1982. I have a deep respect for the European leagues that have for so long provided women with the opportunity to compete professionally.  It is amazing to me how throughout history, sport has and continues to transcend political and cultural barriers.

Two women, one Russian and one Latvian, competed against each other on the court during the tough days of the Soviet occupation.  Their daughters, one Russian and one Latvian, just competed on the same team as we brought another Latvian Championship to the long-standing tradition of TTT Riga.  I leave Latvia with not only a greater knowledge of the world we live in, but with a greater appreciation of the beauty of the sport I play.

Girls Celebration of Sports

Girls Celebration of Sports

As I spoke at the NFHS (National Federation State High School Associations) Girls and Women in Sports Luncheon in Indianapolis last week, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the different perspectives in the crowd. There were hundreds of female high school athletes there, the direct beneficiaries of 35 years of Title IX legislation. Sitting next to them were their mothers, who like my own, belonged to a generation where they were denied participation in athletics because of their gender. Lastly, there were the coaches, both men and women, who have devoted their lives to the current and future generations of female athletes.

Yes, women and sport have come a long way… from no involvement at all, to fighting for the right to participate, to inequality, to the improved and often amazing opportunities that exist today. What I love about National Girls and Women in Sports Day is that it is not an attack on the way things used to be, but rather a celebration of where we are today and the road that brought us here!

First and foremost, this day is to honor those who have paved the way, the forerunners like Billie Jean King, who fought defiantly for equality. It also serves to celebrate the opportunities and wonderful achievements of today’s female athletes.

Women in Sports Day can also be educational, teaching the current athletes to appreciate the opportunities that they have… while constantly working to improve the situation for females in the future.

Lastly, this day should inspire us to keep striving, keep moving forward, dreaming bigger, and working toward making those dreams a reality.

Heart to Heart

When was the last time you actually thought about the condition of your heart? No, I am not talking about the pitter-patter feeling that we associate with being in love, or the painful ache that comes when our heart is broken. I am talking about whether it is healthy and strong and able to keep up with all the demands that come with being a woman in this day and age.

A little over two years ago, the mom of one of my dear friends died suddenly from a heart attack. She was an amazing woman, vibrant and full of laughter, caring and compassionate. It was hard to see the pain my friend went through, as she learned to cope without the woman whom she had become accustom to being her steady source of love and support. I often thought of my own mother, and could not imagine what it would be like to have her taken from me.

Why is heart disease the number one killer of women in our country? Well let’s face it ladies, we began multi-tasking about the same time we learned how to walk. God has blessed us with the ability to simultaneously have careers, take care of our families, keep the house in order and maintain our social network. One of our biggest weaknesses and thus greatest challenge is taking care of ourselves!!

For national “Go Red for Women Day” on Feb 1st, I had the opportunity to attend event with Marie Osmond to create awareness as well as listen to some amazing women tell their stories. Marie’s passion for this cause stems from the experience of losing her mother to heart disease as well as her commitment to being around to watch her children grow up. What I learned was that heart disease is an equal opportunity assassin—it does not discriminate by age, race, build, occupation, or physical condition. Although each woman had a unique story to tell, there was a common thread among them: shock. The disbelief that it happened to them. These women lived what most would consider “normal” lives, yet somehow they still fell prey to this disease.

The WNBA is adding a partnership with “Go Red for Women” to the WNBA Cares umbrella. As a league, we stand for the empowerment and inspiration of women, as well as promote healthy decisions and lifestyles. Ladies, I implore you to use this as a call to action. Log onto their website ( for more information, make sure you are getting an annual physical, find out your family history, make sure that you have adopted healthy habits when it comes to diet and exercise, and lastly, encourage the women that you care about to do the same!! Although women have been my main focus in this blog, you are not off the hook gentleman!! Not only should you take the necessary health precautions as well, but you also need to encourage the women in your life to do the same!

It can be said that our heart is the center for your emotional and physical well-being. So from my heart to yours, I wish you health and happiness, and I beg you to please take care of your heart. You owe it to those who love you . . . you owe it to yourself!!

A Visionary Woman in South Africa

Contrasting factors of race and age are evident at first glance, but upon further investigation you will discover the thread that ties them together is that of the Thembalethu. Serving 13 villages near the southeast corner of Mpumalanga Province in South Africa, this Home-Based Care project (literally translated: “our hope”) has been operating since July 1999. Sally McKibben is the visionary founder of this project, and Blessing Mahlalela is a tangible example of that dream being fulfilled.

A daughter of Irish missionaries, Sally’s pale complexion makes her easily recognizable in the village called Jeppe’s Reef, where she calls home. In defiance the apartheid era in the mid-1980’s, Sally illegally moved to this region that was labeled a black homeland—reserved for blacks only. She started out helping to feed 30,000 refugees a month caught in the crossfire of a Civil War in Mozambique. As the refugee crisis subsided, the effects of AIDS pandemic started to lay its claim on the community.

Over 250 women volunteer care workers joined Sally and Bridgett Moyane to go out daily to homes in rural villages to visit and assist patients suffering from AIDS. As people quickly began to die due to lack of testing and the appropriate drugs, Sally found herself facing another challenge: what to do with the thousands of children left orphaned by this disease . . . hence the birth of Thembalethu. The volunteers began to keep a database of all the orphaned children, providing them not only with food, clothing, and shelter, but also helping them get the necessary documentation to receive national aid for school. When this wasn’t possible, they personally covered the cost of the uniforms and school supplies.

Youth in Action (YIA) is yet another branch of Thembalethu that uses sports, drama, arts and crafts, journalism, and dance as a AIDS prevention mechanism with the youth. Through these different avenues, young men and women are also being taught valuable life-skills lessons and being challenged and empowered to take control over all aspects of their lives from health to education to profession.

Blessing Mahlalela is an amazing young man who is not only experiencing the personal benefits of Thembalethu, but who is also fulfilling the vision that was birthed by Sally almost 20 years ago. In our classroom life-skills sessions, Blessing was amazingly attentive, energetic to contribute, while constantly contemplating how to integrate this knowledge into bettering his community. On the court, he not only grasped the fundamental concepts that we taught, but proved to be a natural leader as just the next day he was implementing the drills with his team.

I left South Africa absolutely inspired by what one woman with a vision, heart, and lifetime devotion has been able to do. Equally inspirational are the men and women I met, like Blessing, who are embracing the opportunity to not only change the direction of their lives, but that of their families and entire communities.

Small Steps to Eliminating AIDS

In the WNBA, I have the task of competing against some of the best athletes in the world, but in my trip to South Africa a few weeks ago I was faced with the challenge of combating one of the greatest killers in our world: AIDS. I am going to spend the next few blogs talking about what I experienced, the people I met, and what I learned. HIV/AIDS is a disease that entraps its victims because of certain cyclic economical, cultural, and political factors.

Lets take South Africa for example, where (depending on the region) you will find the prevalence rate for AIDS at an astonishing 30%. At first glance that number is quite daunting, and makes you really contemplate what angle is most affective to take action. I will start by illustrating what I believe are some of the main contributing factors, and then I will tell you what myself and other members representing the NGO Triadtrust ( did to initiate change.

Like some of its Africa counterparts, South Africa is a politically divided and unstable country. One thing I have learned through the Nothingbutnets campaign, is that when it comes to distributing health care measures, there must be a strong, organized, and committed national government to make it work. If the voice of the nation is more concerned about staying in power than the welfare of its people, it becomes very difficult intrinsically or externally to establish an infrastructure that will educate, identify, and treat those with HIV/AIDS (or any other health issue). During his rape trial, Jacob Zuma (newly elected African National Congress leader) was quoted in the media saying that a person can simply take a shower after intercourse to eliminate the transmission of HIV. It is misinformation like this, coming from prominent national figures, that has enabled and augmented the course of this pandemic.

Poverty is another major component that must be considered. It not only leads to the obvious lack of resources, but also a lack of education (high illiteracy rate), a heighten rate of dependency on others (especially women who are forced to trade sex for food or money) and a disconnected conviction of how individual actions affect themselves and others. When life expectancy is low and mortality rates are high, the mindset tends to be: why worry about a disease that will kill me in the future or kill the person I am sleeping with when I am trying to get through today—live for today, and worry about tomorrow if and when I get there.

The remaining piece is intricately woven in the culture itself. The role of women in society diminishes their right to demand a partner to wear protection. Even more tragic, South Africa is the rape capital of the world, where on average there is one rape every 49 seconds. Young adults will often be engaging in sex before it is culturally suitable for them to talk about it, therefore eliminating the role of sex-education (if by chance there was education to be had). Finally, the ever-present stigma that accompanies anyone with HIV/AIDS, discourages most people from even getting tested.

Based on this information, I asked myself what I could possibly to do help. I can’t change the government, I don’t have the economic background to create financial solutions, but what I do possess is a platform given to me by the status of the sport I play and the knowledge of what it takes to build character and self-esteem. Triadtrust is an NGO that combines sports clinics with leadership training and HIV/AIDS education/prevention. Our objective is to first and foremost educate the coaches and the players on how the disease is transmitted, how it can be prevented, and the methods of treatment. Secondly, we spend time doing team-building exercises, role-playing, and round-table discussions about how these coaches and players can be better leaders and role-models in their communities. Lastly, we go out to either the basketball court or the soccer fields and teach them technical skills in their respective sports.

Yes, I realize this is a very grassroots approach to a disease of pandemic proportions. You must go into battle with a clear understanding of what your strengths are and where you can contribute. My small contribution is developing the skills and qualities that will enable the young men and women I work with to question what they have always known to be a reality and dare to dream of something better—this country is in desperate need of quality leadership, so I will try teach them what that looks like. Maybe it is my inherent optimism, but I believe in the small steps.

Basketball in Bamako (Mali)

Walking in the basketball arena in Bamako, Mali, my eyes went straight to the two slightly bent rims on either side of undoubtedly one of the nicest basketball court in the country. As I turned around, I was greeted by 60 pairs of eyes staring curiously at me. With the help of a few of Hamchetou Maiga-Ba’s African Champion, Olympic qualifying teammates, we were about to conduct a basketball clinic for the 6 girl’s league teams in the city.

As I surveyed the crowed I immediately recognized the similarities and differences between us. Remembering back to when I was their age, I could identify with their eagerness to attend a basketball camp, nervousness to do ball-handling drills in front the group, and excitement to just be in the gym with my friends. Then, there were the obvious differences: age, ethnicity, skill level, but there was one thing that I couldn’t shake from my consciousness was the weight of responsibility on these children that I never had to experience.

As a professional athlete, I have learned what it takes for me to compete at a high level, what I should eat, how much rest I need, and how to maintain my fitness level. These children must be responsible way beyond their 10,12, or 14 years. Daily they wonder where their next meal will come from, if they can find clean water, and how they can prevent disease (malaria and others) from making them sick or quite possibly killing them.

After the clinic, where I was quite impressed by the level of their fundamental skills, we went outside and joined a group of young soccer players who were simultaneously taking part in a clinic with MLS stars Dwayne DeRosario and Diego Gutierrez. As I looked at this group of young men and women, I felt conflicting emotions of sadness and hope. Statistically a child dies every 30 seconds in Africa of malaria. I wanted so desperately to give them all the carefree childhood that they deserve. As we distributed insecticide-treated mosquito nets to every child, I was slightly encouraged. These children left wearing new t-shirts, armed with as much information as we could give them in the few hours we had together, and grasping one of the resources (net) necessary to allow them to stay healthy enough to put that new found knowledge to practice!