Like many Semester at Sea alums, Cassie Childers came off her voyage in 2003 wanting to ignite change‚Äîbut she wasn‚Äôt really sure how to go about it or in what capacity she would do so. She relocated to Thailand after graduating college later that year and taught English for a stint before returning to the United States and using her degree to teach elementary school, then high school history.
But that wasn‚Äôt enough for the mover and shaker. Childers says she always felt a connection to high school girls and wanted to work with them as more of a mentor and counselor. Little did she know that, years later, she would do just that‚Äîon a global scale. And it was, India, an unlikely candidate given Childers‚Äô own preconceived notions, that would set the ball in motion. ‚ÄúWhen I was on Semester at Sea, the only port I dreaded was India,‚Äù Childers admits. ‚ÄúI had it in my mind that I would absolutely hate it. I planned to eat McDonald‚Äôs for every meal‚Äîand the exact opposite happened. I loved it, it changed my life, and I promised myself I would go back.‚Äù
And she did return, on many occasions. While living in Asia, Childers spent time in Dharamsala‚Äîhome to the Dalai Lama and a large community of Tibetan refugees‚Äîto study Buddhist culture. In 2010, during her summer break, she went back to Dharamsala once more. The World Cup was going on, and it struck Childers, a soccer coach and former player, as odd that she was the only woman paying attention to this international event.
During a Tibetan Sports Association photography exhibit she visited, she was also surprised that not only were there no women featured in the photographs, but none others present at the exhibit, period. And this wasn‚Äôt just soccer‚Äîbut all sports when it came to Tibetan women.
‚ÄúI wasn‚Äôt looking for any sort of change at that time. I was perfectly happy to go back to my job,‚Äù Childers recalls, ‚Äúbut I was standing in this exhibition and I looked around the room and there wasn‚Äôt a single female. In about two minutes‚Äîliterally‚ÄîI put together this whole idea about how I was going to change Tibetan society and support Tibet politically by introducing soccer to its female population. It was like an epiphany. And there was no way I could not do it.‚Äù
Childers left her name and email address behind with a note that read: ‚ÄúI think Tibetan women need to play soccer. If you want help, contact me.‚Äù Then she went home, returned to her job that fall and forgot about it. A few months later, she received an email from the Tibetan Sports Association that said: ‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre serious, we want your help.‚Äù
She was. She spent a year back in the United States planning her exit strategy while working tirelessly to get her new non-profit organization,¬†Tibet Women's Soccer, up and running and all the moving parts in place before relocating to Dharamsala‚Äîthis time, for good‚Äîin 2011. And ever since, Childers has rarely stopped to rest. She has now engaged 14 teams and nearly 300 girls in the process. Each team is required to practice two days a week, but Childers‚Äîwho coaches the select team‚Äîpointed out that every team hits the turf a minimum of six days a week, some even seven. ‚ÄúThey just love it,‚Äù she says in awe.
One hundred percent of the donations made to TWS go to the program. Childers is the registered non-profit‚Äôs only “employee” and even she just lives off of interest accrued from her own savings and plans to continue doing so as long as feasible. Funding the NGO has been a particularly tricky beast given the political implications with China. TWS has corporate donors such as Lush Cosmetics and The B.I.T. Group, but Childers is quick to tell every potential funding agency that they should only get involved if they don't have ties with China (or don't plan to in the future). Therefore, much of the financial backing comes from individual donations via¬†the TWS website. Childers herself is on China's black list after all the promotion she's done to free Tibet, meaning she likely will never step foot inside the Communist nation or Tibet‚Äîat least until it is a sovereign nation.
While some might say Childers has already reached her goal‚Äîcreating a sustainable league with 14 teams and nearly 300 participants‚Äîthe self-motivator has even bigger ones in mind: first, for every Tibetan girl in exile to have the opportunity to play soccer recreationally and, ultimately, to form the first women‚Äôs national team for Tibet‚Äîand to coach it herself. With talks with International Olympic Committee and FIFA (the international governing body for soccer) underway, Childers have been making baby steps toward that goal, though she admits it‚Äôs going to take a lot of time.
She points out that there are 5.5 million Tibetans living in Tibet and just 150,000 Tibetans living in exile, so she‚Äôs only able to work with a small fraction of the population she‚Äôs targeting. ‚ÄúThose living in Tibet can‚Äôt even wave their flag. They can‚Äôt even own their flag. And so it really means something when we field a team that waves the Tibetan flag.¬†They‚Äôre representing all those others who can‚Äôt. ‚Äú
And aside from giving Tibetan women a chance, Childers has found that she's achieved that counselor role she once wanted so badly, as many of the local Indian women come to her for guidance with stories of domestic violence and other abuse. Childers has become an icon in the community of Dharamsala, a voice of hope and a symbol to all the women that they deserve more.
And that can only serve to benefit Tibet in the end. Because the day TWS has achieved all of its dreams is the day Childers says she‚Äôll finally stop. ‚ÄúAnd it might take us years, but we¬†will¬†get there. I‚Äôm in it for the long haul, and I‚Äôm not going to give up.‚Äù