Activate Her – Adele Bruggeman Empowers Khayelitsha Sportswomen

Warren Lucas & Nicklaus Kruger 17 February 2021

In South Africa, growing up as a girl can be more than a little difficult. One in 5 young women are exposed to gender-based violence. 1 in 3 young women become pregnant before the age of 20. And young women contract HIV at a rate 2 times higher than young men. Girls need safe spaces to be able to be themselves – and develop their full potential. 

“Sports can teach skills you didn’t even know you possessed, and help you discover what you can do even when you might not have believed that you could,” says Adele Bruggeman, the founder of ActivateHer, a sports-for-development NGO located in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. “Practice and hard work teaches you that you can overcome challenges, and that is an empowering process in itself.”

ActivateHer is a sports development organisation for girls, leveraging the power of sports to become a catalyst for positive change through education, health, and employment. ActivateHer works to empower girls and young women who bear the largest burdens of poverty by giving them access to support, resources and training to guide them towards success.

“Girls and women often have low self-worth and self-esteem,” Bruggeman says. “Sports is a great way to empower girls by acknowledging all the strength they have within themselves, discovering more about their bodies and abilities, and developing life skills that will lead to their future success as leaders in their communities.”

ActivateHer was founded in 2018, and that first year saw Bruggeman and her team offer programming for 35 girls. Now ActivateHer reaches over 100 girls in weekly sports programming, breaking down the traditional gender barriers that are associated with physical activity, and helping girls recognise that they too can dribble a soccer ball, toss a rugby ball, or run around the field. 

“Growing up on the sports fields myself, I have a strong passion for helping more girls find their own confidence through taking ownership of their bodies, minds, and leadership potential with all of the magical skills sports can teach us,” she says. “I’m still recognising this as an adult, that sports taught me many of my skills around working with a team, communicating clearly, setting goals and more all came from having participated in sports as I grew up.” 

It gets challenging, though – especially now.

“COVID has put a real spin on our programming in the past year, as we weren’t able to run programmes from March to October 2020,” Bruggeman notes. “Because we supplement what the girls are learning in school there wasn’t really a way we could reach them while they were sheltering at home – so instead we supported the school as best we could to provide food, sanitation and education materials to them.” 

In order to fund ActivateHer’s work, the team is developing HerActive, an ethical activewear line to generate sustainable income for their programming, while also leading more girls and young women to get active through access to appropriate sports apparel. 

Activating Adele: Sports And Development Around The World

Adele Bruggeman grew up in the United States, primarily playing soccer and lacrosse throughout my whole childhood (a goalie in both). 

“Basically I was always outside either riding my bike, hanging out at the pool, or creating games in the yard with my two sisters,” she says. “My parents always harped on being well-rounded, so it wasn’t enough to just be good at sports, but  was important to also achieve academically, and give back to the community whenever possible.” 

This led her to become a volunteer coach for local primary school teams and eventually led me into playing both soccer and lacrosse while studying sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Having taken a few international development courses, she quickly became interested in building a career working around the globe using sports for good and building communities – an interest that took her to Uganda, Kenya, and finally South Africa. 

I originally moved to South Africa in 2013 where I worked at a children’s home in Komga, Eastern Cape,” Bruggeman recalls. “And after living there for a year, I fell in love with this amazing country – so I decided to pursue my Masters at the University of Cape Town to continue to appreciate all of the magic South Africa has to offer. Eight years later, I’m still here!”

She’d been working in community development since 2015 and had always been interested in using sports for development. When a local NGO  focused on empowering girls through STEM programming decided to start a pilot school to make their programmes accessible to more girls, they couldn’t find a sports partner to complement their after school programmes. 

“All of the other NGOs we spoke with either didn’t work in the Khayelitsha community, didn’t have female coaches, worked with older children, or only had sports specific offerings. That’s really the moment that the idea of ActivateHer came, realising there was a gap in sports development offerings specifically for girls that takes a multi-sports approach and works with girls from their point of entry into school all the way through to adulthood.”

It’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

“Seeing the girl’s enthusiasm when it’s class time, and their mastery of skills, makes it all worthwhile. We have portions of our class that have a set routine so they know what is coming (super important for kids), and when they can lead these activities themselves without their coaches, it’s so exciting to see them take on leadership roles and show off what they have learned.”

So does she have any advice for other young athletes who want to be all they can be?

“Never give up,” she says.” Sounds cliche, sure, but if you set goals for yourself and work hard toward achieving them through practice, hard work, mental toughness and perseverance  there’s no stopping you from achieving success. And remember how important it is to be a team player, you can only get to where you are going by working together.”

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