Skip to main content

The Center for Sport, Peace, and Society recently hosted six Venezuelan coaches as part of an exchange program through Partners of the Americas and the US Department of State.

Venezuelan coaches visit UT
Venezuelan exchange coaches pose for a photo after a strength and conditioning session at UT.

The four-day exchange focused on how participation in sports can inspire youth to create positive change in their communities and avoid the violence, gangs, and drugs that plague much of Venezuela.

As part of their time in Knoxville, the coaches visited UT Athletics’ sports facilities, sat in on service-learning classes, and participated in on-campus instruction through the VOLeaders Academy.

“I was so interested in what these student-athletes are learning,” said Celia Palencia, a swimming coach at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. “The connection between sports and education is very important to the work I do, and often in Venezuela young people are forced to choose one or the other. I think they are tied together.”

VOLeaders with coaches
Venezuelan exchange coaches visit Torchbearer Plaza with the inaugural members of the VOLeaders Academy.

The coaches visited Girls Inc. of Oak Ridge, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Jefferson County High School, and enjoyed several cultural activities around Knoxville.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Ernis Arias, a former baseball player and trainer who attended Olivet Nazarene University and served as the group’s translator. “I was so impressed by the care that everyone took with us. We will take back to Venezuela so many new lessons on volunteering, education, leadership and how sports play a part.”

The coaches represented a wide range of disciplines, including track and field, swimming, fitness and mixed martial arts. They toured Summitt Plaza, Neyland Stadium, Regal Soccer Stadium, Sherri Lee Parker Stadium, and Thompson-Boling Arena.

“The main purpose of the program is to inspire these coaches to use sports to keep kids off the streets and help them find a sense of belonging in something far more fruitful,” said Ashleigh Huffman, assistant director of the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. “We can’t wait to hear about the successes of these coaches once they return to their cities.”


Brian Canever (551-221-1382,

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,