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Witnessing Transformation, Advocating for Education: Allyson Felix’s Story

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Education has always been an important part of Allyson Felix’s life. Growing up in a household where both of her parents were educators, the Olympic and World Championship medalist remembers how much they cared about their students’ success, both in the classroom and beyond. As a young girl, she spent hours in school with her mother, watching her grade papers and helping her decorate her classroom.

“Education was always a priority. My parents always taught me and my brother that education was a vehicle to a better life. I think that gave us a great foundation to be able to have a mindset that it was something that would empower you for life.”

That passion for education is what drove Allyson to become a Right To Play ambassador in 2011. She remembers sitting with Right To Play founder and fellow Olympian, Johann Olav Koss, listening to him share his vision for providing education to the world's most vulnerable children using the power of play. Inspired by the work he described. Allyson joined the team.

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Allyson and Right To Play founder, Johann Olav Koss (centre), congratulate a young woman for winning an award on one of Allyson’s first visits to Lebanon in 2011.

Allyson says it was her visit to Jordan and Lebanon in 2011 that really showed her the power of play-based education. As she went from classroom to classroom, she listened to children describe the changes they were seeing in themselves as a result of the programs. Hearing them share about the confidence they were building and how they could see their personalities and skills evolving touched something deep within Allyson.

“I was completely changed by the experience, and I was walking away with so much because of it. I felt like my life completely shifted,” she recalls. “Here I was coming to see how these programs work and see the impact of Right To Play, and it felt like I was helping, but it also felt like in return, I was the one being helped.”

Now, nine years later and with a young daughter herself, Allyson’s belief in education as a powerful force in a child’s life has taken on new significance. In her role as a member of Right To Play’s U.S. Board of Directors, these days she’s thinking more than ever about the power of education to empower girls. As Allyson spends time thinking about what her daughter Camryn’s educational journey will look like, she can’t help thinking about girls all over the world who don’t have the opportunities and access.

“I know [my daughter] Camryn is privileged and that makes me want to work even more for the rights of other girls. Because I know what education can do, the freedom that it can give girls, and the reality that lots of girls around the world do not have that opportunity to have that same level of education.”

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Allyson joins a group of girls after class in Mozambique in 2015.

Allyson remembers a visit to a refugee camp in Lebanon, where she met a young girl named Miriam and her family. The girl’s father sat, beaming with pride as he described how his daughter’s confidence had grown once she joined a Right To Play program, and how she went on to become a coach and form a soccer league within the refugee camp.

“He said that she just looked like a different person from when she began the program, to really taking on that leadership role,” says Allyson. “When you’re talking about young girls in this part of the world, that’s something that is not that common. So, it was really just amazing to hear about [Miriam’s] transformation and what a significant role it had played in her life and how in return she was inspiring other girls in her own community.”

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On a visit to Uganda in 2012, Allyson joined school children for an afternoon of activities that helped them build their communication skills.

Right To Play has a 20 year track record of empowering children with play and Allyson is proud to be able to contribute. As Allyson reflects how much more still needs to be done to ensure that every girl like Miriam can have a quality education, she tells us that play is an important tool for realizing that.

“I think a lot of times, we don’t realize our privilege and what an amazing opportunity it is to have an education and, particularly for young girls, to be in an environment where they’re encouraged to learn. There are just so many challenges to overcome and so many resources that these kids don’t have.”

“But, over the years, I’ve seen the power of play at work. I’ve seen it transform lives and give confidence. Every parent wants their child to have an opportunity for a better life, and these programs, using play, really have the power to change their lives.”

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