Adele Bruggeman '13

Fusing Sports and Girls Development In Cape Town


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When Adele Bruggeman ’13 returned to the United States after volunteering in the Eastern Cape of South Africa the summer after her Notre Dame graduation, she found that while she may have left Africa, it hadn’t really left her.

Driven by a passion for sports, a deep love of the people she met in Africa, and helping children — especially young girls — Bruggeman has now spent the better part of seven years working in international development in Cape Town. The latest step in that journey was the founding of her NGO, ActivateHer, in January 2018 to provide sporting opportunities for girls ages 3-14 in underserved communities in Cape Town.

“All along the way, I wanted to find a way to fuse my passion for sports and what it gave me in my personal life journey (with my passion for empowering girls),” Bruggeman said. “To feel that I can achieve things through overcoming challenges that you face on a very basic level on the sports field, I think they can carry that with them into other professional, adult settings, as well.”

A sociology major and former goaltender on the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team, Bruggeman fell in love with Africa after studying in Uganda while working on her senior thesis exploring the benefits of sports in school-age girls. She returned to the continent after graduation, taking advantage of a post-graduate volunteer opportunity with the Open Arms Home for Children through the Center for Social Concerns. There, in rural South Africa, she helped serve the emotional, physical, and developmental needs of the 56 children in the home.

Soon, she realized how much of her identity was wrapped up in living with and serving the children in the communities she had visited. After completing the CSC program, Bruggeman moved to San Francisco to begin a career in international development. But while ostensibly engaging in the same kind of work, she found sitting behind a computer lacked the kind of fulfillment she got working hands-on with those children on the other side of the world. 

“I felt very torn because I needed to be a 22-year-old getting a job and entering the workforce,” Bruggeman said. “But I also felt that my kids in South Africa were going to need me and it's hard to (play the role of a parent) and then (suddenly) not be a parent, in some senses.”

After just six months back in the U.S. — three at the job in San Francisco — Bruggeman returned to South Africa, choosing to earn a master’s in Social Policy and Management from the University of Cape Town. At the same time, she began working as a fundraiser and community development practitioner with Children of South Africa, a nonprofit that supports South African community-based organizations to care for and support orphans and other vulnerable children. It is under that umbrella that she founded ActivateHer and is working to build it into an independent organization.

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Bruggeman, who maintained a Google Doc filled with potential NGO ideas, kept coming back to the concept of girls and sports, first fostered while working on that senior thesis in Uganda. She had worked with a girls after-school program that emphasized science, technology, engineering, and math education with Children of South Africa, but she saw an opportunity to get the girls more active.

“I came in and would run sports days with them,” she said, “and I think just adding my injection of sports into the day became more of a long-term thinking of, ‘Can we make this something that’s sustainable and can deliver sports for a broader group of girls?’”

The first year of ActivateHer saw Bruggeman and her team offer programming for 35 girls. That number has since grown to 120, but the program still faces hurdles. She has learned the value of building relationships and listening to members of the community as her outsider status means she has to earn her credibility.

“As a white, female American working in community development, I can't come in with these big ideas and think they're going to work without stakeholders from the community also seeing the credibility that the (program) has.”

Additionally, health and wellness remain luxuries in the communities ActivateHer targets, so Bruggeman must also target her messaging to shift attitudes toward seeing the value the organization offers. One way she’s done this is by incorporating a language component alongside sports offerings like netball, cricket, and rugby. 

Though her short-term goal is to build out ActivateHer into a full-time, traditional non-profit, she would eventually like to see it evolve into a larger social enterprise. They are currently developing an activewear line to generate funding, and she hopes to eventually nurture it into a self-sustaining business rather than one dependent on grants and donations. Expansion beyond Cape Town is also a long-term consideration.

“I think I’ve learned in my professional space that it’s more about listening before you act and the best way to get people on your side is to respect people first and foremost,” Bruggeman said. “I know I’m different and I’m here, but being present and listening to people and respecting them in their space and the knowledge that they hold has taught me so much about South Africa and the African continent. People have welcomed me with open arms and I feel so privileged and honored to be here.”

To learn more about ActivateHer, visit its website or email Adele Bruggeman at