Gabby Gilbert has gone from playing forward and scoring goals to paying it forward and helping disadvantaged children on the other side of the world achieve goals of their own. Shortly after graduating last spring, the former South Carolina soccer student-athlete spent a month in Vietnam as a volunteer with Coach for College, which is a non-profit organization that offers recently graduated student-athletes the chance to teach youths in rural parts of developing countries. This is part of a global initiative to promote higher education through sports.
"I went there to teach them, and they taught me so much about different cultures and just so much about being more grateful for what I have here," Gilbert said. "When I first heard about this, I knew that Coach for College was something I wanted to do because I could apply sports and actually help the kids in school."
The eight American student-athletes were joined by eight Vietnamese coaches, who were local university students majoring in English.
The days were long and began early with camp getting underway at 7 a.m. Gilbert taught soccer and health as the coaches would alternate 40 minute lessons on sports followed by 40 minute educational lessons several times per day for sixth graders in the morning and seventh graders in the afternoon.
"One of the classes we taught every day was life skills," Gilbert said. "So we taught them teamwork, failures, success, and perseverance. Those were the most meaningful lessons because we gave them a lot of our own experiences. I showed them the Gamecocks women's soccer highlight video, and they were going crazy. They were screaming and wanted me to sign the back of their jerseys. So I felt like a superstar."
Other than obvious differences in language and food, perhaps the greatest cultural differences were seen in the appreciation that the Vietnamese children had for basic things that many Americans take for granted.
"The last day we went to their houses," Gilbert said. "They lived in huts. There was one girl who was proud to show us her electricity. They all ride these rickety bikes with no brakes and no pedals. It's just really eye-opening and makes you wonder how you could ever complain about anything here. These kids are sleeping on bamboo mats."
Kids are kids, and the children in Vietnam like to play sports and have fun, even if they don't have the electronic gadgets and games that are commonplace in the United States. Gilbert plans on going to optometry school in 2015 and to eventually use her skills to go to places such as Vietnam, where she learned that even a simple thing can have a huge impact.
"I'd like to give kids the opportunity to see better," Gilbert said. "There was one girl in the entire school who had glasses. She was the only one who had glasses and running shoes, and she was the rich one."
Gilbert and her counterparts were there to teach, but she found that she learned something impressive about the youngsters and a level of maturity in the way they cared about their future.
"A lot of the kids knew what they were missing out on," Gilbert said. "They would draw on the board how in the future they want to see Vietnam have high-rise buildings or gardens or a hospital. It was eye-opening that they know what they don't have, but it's amazing that they want to change that."
Although she was tired at the end of every day, the smiles she would see on the children's faces each morning when she arrived at camp made it worthwhile, and she cherishes the relationship she had with each of them. The month-long trip would pass quicker than she thought, and that led to a tearful goodbye.
"When we were leaving to go to the airport, every single person was crying," Gilbert said. "From the cool boys in class to the little girls, they were just sobbing in tears. This one little boy wiped the tears from my eyes and patted me on the back. It was like he was telling me, without saying any words, everything was going to be OK."
Gilbert went in thinking she would have a positive impact on the youngsters, and she came out realizing the impact it had on her was huge.
"I took away that I want to live a life where I want to do more service," Gilbert said. "I never thought I would feel such an impact from this experience. I hope that more Gamecocks can do it. It was an amazing experience and it will change you for the better."