Gutierrez lends a hand to a worthy cause
If you could save someone's life for $10, wouldn't you?
Chicago Fire midfielder Diego Gutierrez is posing this question to almost everyone he comes in contact with these days as a national spokesperson for Nothing but Nets, a United Nations Foundation campaign that works to provide mosquito nets to families in Africa. It costs the organization $10 to purchase, distribute and teach families how to use the nets.
"For most people in this country, $10 is not a lot of money, and for $10 you're able to save a family of people from dying of malaria," Gutierrez said. "To me, that's huge."
The groundwork for Gutierrez's involvement was laid in December '06 after a family friend asked the 12-year league veteran why U.S. professional soccer wasn't involved in the campaign to fight malaria and told him about the efforts of Nothing but Nets and its partner organization, Malaria No More.
Gutierrez did not have an answer, and he didn't even know much about malaria, for that matter. However, his friend's inquiry stuck with him, and the player did some research on the disease. What he read disturbed him and moved him to act.
Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease affects up to 500 million people worldwide and kills 1 million people annually. Most of these deaths are children. While the disease has been long eradicated in the United States and other developed nations, 40 percent of the world's population is still exposed.
"There are more than 3,000 kids that are dying daily of malaria in Africa," Gutierrez said. "This is a disease that is both preventable and treatable. Generations of people are dying monthly, and it's one of the main causes why this continent remains poor. A lot of people in the West haven't heard of it. They're not aware that this is a humongous problem."
Born and raised in Colombia, Gutierrez relates to the daily struggles and disadvantages people living in underdeveloped nations face. However, it hit deeper than that.
"I also relate because I have children," Gutierrez said. "Something that I'm grateful to have is that I'm able to provide safety for my children and health just by living in this country. Other parents aren't as fortunate, and their children are dying just because of geographically where they are born. That's something that we have to change, and I believe that's something that our generation can change."
He and his wife, Ginna, set out to see what small part they could play in helping make change happen.
"My wife and I just started thinking how we could make the biggest impact and how we could use the assets that we have in our league," Gutierrez said. "Well, the biggest asset that we have as a sport is our players. We're the ones that people see on TV, and for better or for worse, I think nowadays in our society guys that either kick or throw or shoot a ball for a living, people hear us better. We have a platform."
In March, Gutierrez contacted the United Nations Foundation to express his desire to help and spoke with his team about getting involved. However, after leaving that meeting with the Chicago Fire, he realized it was a larger issue -- one that deserved attention from Major League Soccer as a whole. As it turned out, the league was preparing to launch its MLS W.O.R.K.S. community outreach initiative.
"One of the international partnerships we were working on was with Malaria No More," MLS executive vice president JoAnn Neale said. "At that same time, quite coincidentally, Diego and Ginna came to us and said they were interested in working with Nothing but Nets."
Gutierrez didn't just contact the league asking if he could help. He brought ideas.
"It was just amazing," Neale said. "We got the call from them and they said, 'Hey we've got players lined up [to do a public service announcement]. This is when we're filming it. This is what we're doing. What can you do to help?' Our response was, 'What do you need? That's fantastic.' We were absolutely thrilled to have a player take so much initiative."
The Chicago Fire starter recruited Andy Herron (Columbus Crew), Alecko Eskandarian (Toronto FC) and Nick Garcia (Kansas City Wizards) to shoot the 30-second video. The ad has been airing in every MLS stadium and during a number of televised games.
"That just kind of happened," Ginna Gutierrez said. "We approached the league and said we want to do a PSA and get it out in the public eye. Diego's been in the league for 12 years, so he went to some of his buddies that he's been playing with for a long time and he kind of just started asking for favors. The response that we got was unbelievable. We kind of jumped on board and it all came together pretty rapidly."
So quickly that in April, Diego and Ginna Gutierrez found themselves in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Bush and other world leaders addressing ways to fight and prevent malaria.
"We were kind of blown away," said Diego Gutierrez of the invitation. "As a kid growing up in Bogota, Colombia, I never imagined that I was going to be walking into the White House and meeting such influential people. ... It's a reminder for me of the influence that we have at our fingertips as professional soccer players, that we really can make an impact on our society and we can really make an impact on the world."
The idea is to use that influence in a positive way.
"We have to create awareness and make sure that people know about this because when people know about it solutions are born, ideas are born and a lot of things happen," Gutierrez said. "We have to get the word out there."
However, Gutierrez hopes that his involvement in this cause will not be a lifelong one.
"Ideally, five or 10 years from now, I will be on to another charity and we won't be talking about malaria because I envision that it won't be a problem by then," he said. "That's our goal."
When that happens, credit Gutierrez with another assist.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.