Batoul Arnaout arrived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last month with a carry-on full of questions to be answered and challenges in search of strategies.
She went home with the contents rearranged — and, it only seems fair, with a couple of surprises shoehorned in there, too. Starting with this: the issues she grapples with are issues pretty much everywhere.
“It was eye-opening to learn that we all face the same problems,” she said.
Already an established and successful grassroots organizer in her native Jordan, Arnaout recently concluded a whirlwind three weeks in the Global Sports Mentoring Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Matched with mentor Alicia McConnell, the United States Olympic Committee’s director of training sites and community partnerships, Arnaout sought guidance from McConnell and other sports administrators and activists, hoping to turn a vision for sports growth in her country into a more distinct and detailed mission — and with a message she can spread across her country.
As it turned out, her message was heard here, too.
“She’s inspiring to work with,” McConnell said. “The things she’s already achieved and challenges she’s overcome were things I could learn from, as well.”
A lifelong athlete in her country, Arnaout has tried to tackle a wide range of sports-related needs in her organizational work. Among them: better facilities and outlets for sports and recreation, more broad-based events that can serve as a launching pad for potential elite-level athletes and increased participation for women in a culture not especially accepting of that notion.
It was in the context of that last problem that Arnaout received a bit of a shock.
“I was talking to one of the USA Cycling people, and I asked her what her main challenge was,” Arnaout recalled, “and she said, ‘Trying to get more women involved.’ I thought this was only my problem — that there were very few women that do cycling and sports in Jordan. To find that the same thing is viewed as a problem here was surprising.”
As was this: raising money to fund projects is everyone’s Everest.
“I thought that it would be so much easier in the United States — you guys have the money,” Arnaout said. “But it’s clearly a challenge for everyone.”
Most of Arnaout’s projects have grown out of a community athletic development arm she founded called BOOST — Better Opportunities and Options for Sports Today. Unclear about what sport or group she might target next, Arnaout, with McConnell’s help, settled on launching a running group for about two dozen girls, ages 14-19, in one of Jordan’s poorest areas.
Initially, Arnaout’s job will be to increase fundraising and sponsorships for coaching, equipment and training facilities.
“We also need to have awareness campaigns through the media, to let people know about these underserved girls and how talented they are,” she said. “We must educate the public in how sports can be important for these girls — how it can change their lives. One of the major problems in areas like this is that girls are forced to get married at an early age and they never get to realize their athletic potential and what sports can do for them.”
Said McConnell, “Her previous job was in PR, so she knows how to engage people, and she’s very good in her ability to fundraise. What we talked about was creating different models of her presentation to really tell the story and pull at heartstrings — that’s where people tend to give money. Shorten it up, include key messages and make it relate directly to the people you’re approaching.”
They also talked about increasing a presence on social media, or with a website or mobile apps, to create more awareness — and converts.
“If people agree with her mission,” McConnell said, “they would then become advocates who could connect her with corporate donors.”
While the running group will be her main focus upon returning, Arnaout was able to tap other sources for tools she can put to future use. An avid cyclist, her time talking with USA Cycling personnel gave her insight into staging events more efficiently and reaching more participants. She met with the Trails and Open Space Coalition of Colorado Springs about marshaling volunteer efforts to create and maintain recreational areas. From Colorado Springs Sports Corp, she learned how community activism in sports could provide benefits to the local economy.
“And another thing I found interesting is how much people here care about the Paralympics and disabled athletes,” Arnaout said. “There are not specialized programs to involve them in Jordan, and it made me think that needs to be a goal, to create and tailor training programs for them and include everyone.”
If there was a drinking-from-the-fire-hose aspect to her information gathering in the states, Arnaout understands the growth of her enterprise back home will come in fits and starts — and she knows where she can look for more answers.
“When you know other people are facing the same problems you are, it makes you feel that you’re not alone,” she said. “I always have someone to go back to now, people I can talk to and ask questions and develop long-term relationships with. It doesn’t just stop here.
“I hope I will always be in contact with these people and can continue to learn from them.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.