The Grassroot Project (TGP) is a Washington, DC nonprofit that advances health equity by using sports to reimagine health education in middle schools. With programs that have been shown to significantly improve the health education outcomes of DC students, the organization has delivered comprehensive school-based HIV, STI, and teen pregnancy prevention services to more than 5,000 teenagers at more than 50 schools across the city.

In 2018, TGP received a Partner Grant from Many Hands to support the expansion of its services to include one year each of sexual health education, physical health education, and mental health education for middle school students. TGP is now in the process of implementing and evaluating these new curricula. Many Hands Board member Robin Berkley had the pleasure of touching base with founder and Executive Director Tyler Spencer, a Rhodes Scholar and recipient of the Clinton Global Initiative University Outstanding Commitment to Action Award. Here’s what he had to say:

How did the Many Hands grant help TGP fulfill its goals of broadening its reach with sexual, mental, and physical health education for DC students?

When we applied for the grant in 2018, we had a really big vision to expand our work from an eight-week, sexual health promotion program into a three-year series, or “pipeline,” of adolescent health programs that focused on mental, nutritional, and sexual health. Many Hands gave us…funds to start growing our team, doing community-based research to inform the creation of new curricula, designing and pilot-testing our new curricula, and evaluating our work. We were able to fully execute the project, and we are now providing three-year health programs in all of our partner middle schools…[The Partner Grant] also gave us the cache to go out and leverage Many Hands’s support to bring on more new donors…[We] have more than doubled our annual budget from what it was when we first applied for a Many Hands grant.

Why did TGP believe it was important to focus on mental health education with middle school students?

There were a few reasons. First, our schools, parents, and students were saying that mental health was a big concern. They liked how our model had helped to destigmatize sensitive topics in sexual health, and they challenged us to think about how the same model (games-based programs facilitated by college athlete role models) could also impact the climate of mental health in schools.

Second, the majority of recent government support for school health programs has been invested in nutrition and physical activity reform and far less in adolescent mental health…It was clear that we needed more people working on upstream interventions for adolescent mental health (e.g. prevention, mental health promotion, changing the culture of mental health from a young age).

Third, the data…shows us that mental health is still a really big problem in all of our communities. We knew that creating the mental health curriculum had the potential to play a meaningful role in increasing mental health literacy, decreasing stigma around mental health, and helping students to locate and feel comfortable accessing mental health services…Incidence of mental health challenges in DC is highest in two groups—areas with lower-income households and college campuses. The issue of mental health was so relevant to the daily lives of many of our student-athlete volunteers, and I think they have really brought a special conviction to the conversations about mental health that they have with middle school students.

How has TGP pivoted during the COVID pandemic to continue its work and educate DC students?

Our Director of Programs has led an absolutely incredible effort to adapt our programs to ensure that we are continuing to support our students in the best and most dynamic way possible. Early in the pandemic, we reached out to every school and asked them what would be most useful to them. The result was a series of different types of partnerships, depending on each school’s needs. In some schools, our athletes provided live workouts, pre-taped videos, and Instagram posts with health messages. In others, we were fully facilitating online versions of our curricula via Zoom.

A few months into the pandemic, when it became more clear that schools would continue to be online for the long term, we adapted every single one of our curricula so that our athletes could fully facilitate them via a combination of Zoom and Nearpod (an online education platform). We also developed a COVID-19 supplemental curriculum to keep our students informed about key COVID-19 health information and prevention strategies.

Our athletes have also ramped up their participation in our work, as many of them have an even greater passion and ability to work on public health and social justice issues while their classes are online and their sports seasons interrupted. They formed a group within our organization that regularly meets and discusses how they can help advance issues of social justice. Elijah Murphy, a wrestler at American University, spearheaded a lot of those athlete organizing efforts. It was amazing to see Elijah and fellow athlete Niah Woods win the humanitarian award on ESPN’s nationally televised “ESPY Awards” this June. (To read more about the award, click here and here.)

What makes the Many Hands grant process a unique opportunity for an organization like TGP?

Hands down, my favorite part of the process was the diversity of perspectives from the committee members. It was really interesting to engage in conversations with people who approached our project and grant application from different angles…e.g. someone who had previously been a school teacher, someone who had worked as a strategy consultant or in finance, someone who was a medical doctor, a clinical mental health counselor, etc. Each person brought a distinct and important perspective to our work, and it enriched the way we think about our programs and our long-term organizational growth strategy. From my experience in fundraising, this is really unique, as many foundations have a more singular approach to the work.