SAAC in ACCtion: A Long Journey

March 15, 2010

by Alex Botoman

It has been a long journey from the well-manicured turf of Spry Stadium to a dusty pitch in southern Africa, and for former Wake Forest soccer player  (’03) the odyssey has been far more rewarding than she could have ever imagined.

Noftsinger has left behind the comforts of home to become a full-time employee of TRIAD Trust, an organization dedicated to training to reduce the incidence of AIDS-related death in a region on the border of Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa where the disease claims far too many lives.

“In Swaziland it was just released that 42 percent of all women that give birth are HIV-positive,” Noftsinger said. “It’s not due to their own ignorance; it’s due to the fact that they’ve never had any education before. The kids aren’t taught what they need to be taught to survive. We’re there to educate them so they have the knowledge, and what they choose to do with it is their own choice.”

TRIAD uses sport as an avenue for health education, and has created a program that combines youth soccer and basketball leagues with HIV tests and medical lessons. A high-tech fingerprint scanning system tracks children’s HIV tests and attendance at practice and health lectures. If they miss these sessions they are not allowed to play in games that week.

“There’s not that many kids that enjoy being in a classroom. You have so much energy you’d rather be running around. Once somebody is on a competitive field, no matter what sport it is, you are safe from whatever is going on in the outside world,” Noftsinger said.

“Every kid that participates has to get tested for HIV,” she added. “We’re not going to say that you can’t play because you’re HIV-positive. We just want them to know their status.”

A four-year starter for the Demon Deacons, Noftsinger continued the sport she loved after she left Wake, playing professionally in the WUSA and working as an assistant coach at Stanford. However, in 2006, a fluke collision on the practice field resulted in a broken neck and left her looking for new path. 

“I had gone my entire life without being injured before,” said Noftsinger. “I used to run every day and work out every day, and all of a sudden it was all gone. I was trying to find where I was going to go.”

While Noftsinger was searching for a direction for her future, TRIAD Trust was looking for replacements for members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team who had been scheduled to travel to South Africa with the organization but had to cancel because of a game. Some of these players knew Noftsinger and recommended the trip to her.

Sarah Kate NoftsingerAfter talking to the TRIAD founder Brooke Wurst, Noftsinger agreed to take a three-week trip to Africa. While over there, Wurst offered her a position as TRIAD Trust’s first full-time employee and Noftsinger was faced with a life-changing decision.

“I wanted to enjoy the experience and told her I would think about it when I got back,” Noftsinger said. “I had just gotten cleared to run again after my neck surgery, and I was contemplating playing again but I realized there was more to life after having been to Africa. 

In her job as the Director of Sports Programming for TRIAD Trust, Noftsinger constantly travels back and forth between the United States and Africa, staying overseas for two to four weeks at a time. During her stays, she lays the foundation for a successful program and trains local leaders to run the day-to-day operations themselves. In this way, TRIAD creates jobs for adults in the community in addition to providing medical education for the children.

“You can’t teach a kid to walk unless they fall on their face. They have to do it themselves,” said Noftsinger in describing foundation’s goal of self-sufficiency. “I stay down there long enough that the local leaders gain confidence and I help them problem solve, but I leave when they’re at the peak of their confidence. They spend the next six to eight weeks running it, and they stumble and have problems, but they have to be the ones to solve them. Then I will come back and help them take the next step.

It is not easy trying to slow a pandemic in an environment that is far different from anything you have ever been exposed to before. Noftsinger had traveled the world playing soccer, but rarely had the opportunity to see anything but the stadium and her hotel room. Being fully immersed in rural Africa was an experience that nothing could have prepared her for.

“There are cows running around everywhere. People live in grass huts and you have to sleep under a mosquito net,” Noftsinger described. “This will put it in perspective. The last time I was down there we found a three-month old baby on the side of the road that was HIV-positive and had been abandoned by its mother. It’s sad.”

Despite that dour image, her eyes light up as she talks about the positive attitudes of the local people despite the harsh conditions. The area where TRIAD works is one full of hope and the fight against HIV is far from a lost cause.

“Everyone there is so happy. It’s hard to explain” she said. “They have nothing, but they are still so happy. My first reaction wasn’t shock and trauma or the thought that this place is hopeless. It was that this place actually has hope and you can actually do something because they have the resources.”

The desire to help others is one that comes naturally to Noftsinger. Once, when asked what she wanted to for a living, she replied that her dream was to be a professional volunteer. Consider that dream realized. 

As she describes her work with TRIAD, her passion for the cause rings Sarah Kate Noftsingerclearly in her voice. The same heart that once propelled her to victories on the soccer field is now fully devoted to defeating a disease that is preying upon the undereducated youths of southern Africa. It takes a special type of person to take on such overwhelming odds, but there is no doubt that Noftsinger fits the bill.

“She was the energizer. Her personality and the way she played were filled with a lot of life,” said her coach at Wake Forest, Tony da Luz. “Whenever she played it brought a spark to the team and she was always a very caring teammate. (The passion) has always been there.”

It is only fitting that Noftsinger holds a degree from Wake Forest, whose motto "Pro Humanitate" demonstrates the institutionalized commitment to serving others. It is a mentality that carries over to the athletics department, and Noftsinger has been able to use the relationships that she built at Wake to enlist others to help her cause. Former soccer player Will Hesmer and former assistant basketball coach Ernie Nestor have accompanied her on trips to South Africa to lend a helping hand to TRIAD Trust.

“That’s what Wake’s about. That’s the kind of kids that we try to recruit here – kids who want to give back,” da Luz said. “[Our kids] are doing a lot of community service here and I’m proud of them for that. Then when they go out and do things like this in the world community, what better thing can you say about one of your former players?

For Noftsinger, her work in southern Africa brings to mind memories of late Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser who traveled to Kuwait to visit U.S. troops stationed there shortly before his death in 2007.

“I think back to Skip Prosser. It’s something that he would have really embraced” she said. “I handed out a bunch of Wake Forest t-shirts that Ernie [Nestor] brought down [to Africa] and I could really see Skip. He would have loved going down there.”