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Feb 18, 2008

MLS and U.N. team up in Mali

For Dwayne De Rosario, part of preparing for his visit to Mali with Nothing But Nets meant bracing himself for the unexpected.

"I know it's really going to open my eyes," the Houston Dynamo midfielder said before leaving for the trip in late December.

De Rosario joined fellow Major League Soccer player and Nothing But Nets advocate Diego Gutierrez and the WNBA's Ruth Riley as they joined a United Nations Foundation delegation on the trip to promote the organization's Nothing But Nets campaign and Measles Initiative.

As De Rosario knew it would, the experience left a lasting impact on him and, he says, on everyone else.

"Seeing it, it really touches you in a different way," De Rosario said after returning to the States. "You really appreciate what you have already. … I'm not the type to get easily choked up, but I did several times on the trip. They are trying to do what they can with the little that they have.

"We can take a lot from the trip, and [the Malian people] could take a lot from us. It's important that we help places like this, especially when they're suffering from curable or preventable diseases… You want to do so much. You come back home, and you cherish what you have. You definitely can't take it for granted."

The trip represented another step forward in MLS' commitment to Nothing But Nets, a charity that works to reduce the incidence of malaria by providing insecticide-treated bed nets. The Measles Initiative provides polio and measles vaccinations, as well as deworming tablets and vitamin A, to children, specifically targeting those less than 5 years old. These life-saving measures often are taken for granted by those living in the United States, where such diseases are not a serious threat. In Africa, it's a different story.

Malaria kills 1 million people a year, according to the Nothing But Nets campaign, and 90 percent of those casualties are African children. The purpose of the trip to Mali was to reach out to 2.8 million children across the country, providing them with vaccines and their families with bed nets.

"When we landed in Mali, I don't think any of us knew how important or how significant this campaign was going to be," said Gutierrez, a midfielder with the Chicago Fire. "Now that the data is starting to come in … you feel like you're making a difference."

MLS In Mali

For more information on Nothing But Nets, as well as MLS efforts to support the charity's work, visit the Nothing but Nets Web site.

Since becoming involved with Nothing But Nets last season, MLS has been a driving force in the charity's efforts.

"From the beginning, what I've been amazed by is [MLS'] commitment to see this all the way through," said Elizabeth McKee Gore, the executive director of global alliances for the U.N. Foundation and the director of Nothing But Nets.

Players and the league have been active in creating awareness of the organization's mission -- from sponsoring public service announcements to speaking to schools to promoting Nothing But Nets at games. Referees donated through their paychecks.

"One of the reasons that we get involved in things like this is to make a difference," Gutierrez said of Nothing But Nets. "We fully realize that sometimes people listen to professional athletes a little more than they would anyone else. We have an ability and a platform to get a word out there."

As the players saw when they arrived in Mali, spreading the news about such a campaign in an African nation is a completely different process. In a society that doesn't rely on the Internet, phone or television for information, it was word of mouth -- the result of tremendous efforts by the U.N. Foundation and the Malian government -- that brought out millions.

"I understood what the process was, but it's different if you see it firsthand," Gutierrez said. "The thing that opened my eyes the most was seeing the effort that it takes -- a perfect storm of efforts in regards to different organizations worldwide -- everybody working together, everybody set their agendas aside to come together for these people."

The athletes had a special role in helping to raise awareness and promote the campaign once they landed in Mali.

"When we arrive, we host a press conference in a country for the athletes to tell [people] that there is a health campaign," McKee Gore said. "The power of having someone care enough to come from the U.S. who is a major league athlete to say that is just extraordinary. Additionally, to bring health and athletic skills to these youth in combination with health interventions is very powerful. The ministries of health in different African countries really resonate toward it. It's a common language that everyone speaks -- sports, particularly soccer."

De Rosario and Gutierrez put on a soccer clinic for children from throughout Mali as another way to raise awareness. Riley hosted a similar event for girls' basketball.

"The camps gave us a way to teach children why it was that we were really there," Gutierrez said. "Sure, it was to play soccer and to teach them some moves and some skills, but at the end of the day, to have the ability to teach them how to use a bed net and why it was important to get a bed net and why it was important to remind Mom and Dad to take little brothers and sisters to vaccination centers -- the ability to put it all together -- was really special."

The camp also gave the players a way to bond with the people of Mali on another level. It gave the players -- both professional and youth -- an escape from the hardships of life in many African countries.

"Just being there and seeing the kids smiling and kicking around the ball with them, I loved," De Rosario said. "That's my passion and my love, and seeing kids growing up sharing that same passion, it was a bonding moment for us where we could just talk to the kids. Of course, there was a language barrier, but soccer is universal."

There were two goals for the trip, McKee Gore said. The first -- to vaccinate children and disseminate the nets and other medicines -- was achieved in Mali. The second will be ongoing, and that was to give athletes who have a platform a chance to see the organization's work in person so they could return and spread the message of the importance of the U.N. Foundation's work.

De Rosario and Gutierrez are determined to see the latter accomplished.

"Everything that took place was pretty astonishing," Gutierrez said. "It was an educational experience for all of us -- for the population of Mali, for us -- and will continue to be for the American people.

"What we learned on this trip is going to be a massive tool for us, and we will continue pressing on. Everyone is trying to get together and stop 3,000 kids from dying daily."

Maria Burns Ortiz covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.