By Christine Copelan
In a tiny corner of the university’s Health and Physical Education Building, Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman are taking their love of sports and translating it into globe-spanning, life-changing work through the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society.
The center—a partnership of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and the nonprofit Sport 4 Peace—is more than a collaboration between physical activity and sociology; it’s a meeting of humans from around the globe finding comfort and camaraderie in sports.
Last June, Hillyer and Huffman embarked on their latest mission of sports diplomacy when they met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and were awarded a $1.2 million cooperative agreement with the State Department to help facilitate the Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports initiative.
The center’s selection was a great honor that builds on the work Hillyer and Huffman have been doing for years. Though the center officially launched in April 2012, its presence has been an unnamed force at UT and beyond since 2006, participating in international research and outreach to Knoxville-area refugees.
It was their mutual love for sports that brought director Hillyer and assistant director Huffman together. In 2005, Hillyer was leading Sport 4 Peace when she met Huffman, who was playing basketball for Eastern Kentucky University.
Hillyer asked Huffman if she wanted to participate in a basketball exchange program in Wuhan, China, after her senior year. Huffman agreed, and she and a few of her teammates played with women from six universities in China.
“I watched how sports could really transcend so many barriers: language, culture, and religion. When you are on the court, it doesn’t really matter,” says Huffman. “I knew at that point that what Sarah was doing was amazing and I wanted to be part of that.”
Growing up with sports
Hillyer and Huffman grew up in athletic households, where physical activity played a central role in the family dynamic, and life lessons were taught through sports.
But when they went to college, things took a dark turn.
“Ashleigh suffered several sport-related injuries, and I graduated with a degree in sports administration—and a severe eating disorder,” says Hillyer. “Food, access to food, and weight were used as control mechanisms by my coach. There was a lot of power over players. We could either walk away from a ‘free’ education or play by the coach’s rules.”
Hillyer’s experience nearly drove her away from sports forever.
“When I graduated, I was done with sports. I was recovering from my eating disorder and reflecting upon what it was that I actually loved about playing sports in the first place.”
Hillyer realized she had the power to reclaim sports as an important tool for cross-cultural understanding and the empowerment of women and girls.
“I’m in a position to do something. I can take sports and do something positive,” says Hillyer. “It’s my choice now.”
In fall 2010, colleagues working with Knoxville-area Burundian refugees asked Hillyer and Huffman to get UT students involved in a refugee project.
The women recruited students and student-athletes, and through this effort the Knox Kicks World Cup was created. The event brought Burundian refugees and UT students together for a day of soccer and cross-cultural exposure.
While involved in the Burundian effort, Hillyer and Huffman learned about the huge influx of Iraqi refugees in Knoxville.
“Unfortunately, not many organizations reach out to the Iraqi refugees because of the negative stereotypes associated with the war,” says Huffman.
Huffman and Hillyer saw this as an opportunity to reach out to the neglected community. However, they ran into one little problem—they didn’t know a single Iraqi living in Knoxville.
After finding a contact, the women went door to door in the Iraqi community to learn what was needed.
“The kids needed to have a safe place to play,” says Huffman, adding that the places where most Iraqi families live can be unsafe, and some of the children were being bullied at school.
“The women needed a place to do something for their own health. There are not many culturally appropriate places in Knoxville for Iraqi women to exercise,” says Huffman. In the Iraqi community, it isn’t considered appropriate for women and men to exercise near each other, and there are very few female-only gyms in Knoxville.
“Also, the Iraqis wanted to be integrated into the community. They wanted to feel like they were part of Knoxville,” says Huffman.
Hillyer and Huffman realized they would need more than a single event to help, so they started a service-learning class. Students in the class analyzed the Iraqis’ feedback, which led to the creation of a weekly women’s exercise class and health seminar, during which the children participate in a sports and tutoring program.
“It gives the kids a place to play that’s safe with a lot of supervision,” Huffman says, “and it gives the moms an opportunity to get out of the house to take care of themselves and to learn new things about health and wellness.”
The ongoing Iraqi service-learning program continues to benefit not only the refugees but also UT students.
“It’s a learning experience to talk about the history, culture, or politics of Iraq on Tuesday and then see it played out on Thursday,” Hillyer says. “It’s really an eye-opening experience for students.”
The service-learning class hosts three community events each semester, giving the Iraqis an opportunity to build relationships with Americans that extend beyond the service-learning class.
“Looking back and seeing the impact we had on people’s lives, you get more involved than you think. It’s not a normal class. It’s way more than that,” says Ladina Poltera, a student who took the service-learning class. “Out of all the classes I took at UT, this is the one that impacted me the most.”
As the Iraqi work continues and the State Department promises exciting new ventures, Hillyer and Huffman are pleased that their idea of sports diplomacy is changing lives on campus, in Knoxville, and around the world.
“Sport is a common language. When we play together, there is a mutual respect and understanding that allows us to have conversations,” says Hillyer. “I may not share anything else in common with you—your religion, your politics, your culture—but we at least are sharing this round, orange, bouncy ball that we’re trying to put through a cylinder. Through that, we can become friends.”