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A young boy plays soccer at a sports clinic held by Chicago Fire star Diego Gutierrez.  Gutierrez also spread the word about malaria prevention at the clinic.  

Chicago soccer star hits a life-saving net

by Kate Hollencamp
March 04, 2009



Gutierrez distributes bed nets on a 2007 trip to Mali. 



Nothing But Nets volunteers demonstrate proper use of a bed net.

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Countries receiving aid from Nothing But Nets

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Malaria facts and figures

• Malaria has been contained or eliminated in many parts of Asia, Europe and the Americas. In Africa, malaria infections have increased over the last three decades.

• Malaria kills more than a million people per year. Ninety percent of those who die are African children.

• Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies of malaria.

• African malaria mosquitoes generally bite late at night or early morning, between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

• Studies show that use of insecticide-treated bed nets can reduce transmission as much as 90 percent.

Major League Soccer star Diego Gutierrez used to think nets were just for catching shots. Now he knows: They can also save lives.

The Chicago Fire’s former star midfielder became an advocate for Nothing But Nets, a grassroots organization of the United Nations Foundation, after hearing about their mission from a friend. The organization seeks to prevent malaria, a leading killer of children in Africa, by providing mosquito nets to refugee camps throughout the continent.

Close relationships with major league sports have kept Nets’ donations rolling in since the organization’s creation in 2006. Gutierrez used his powerful platform to raise the issue in this city and, eventually, his league. From there, a partnership formed between the UN and MLS’ charitable organization MLS W.O.R.K.S.

“It’s a good example of the power of individuals through this campaign,” said Adrianna Logalbo, Nothing But Nets’ director of partnership alliances.

In fact, Logalbo said the organization got its start thanks entirely to one very popular name in sports.

Sports writer Rick Reilly wrote that he was astounded when he heard that 3,000 children in Africa die every day from malaria. He was even more surprised to hear how easily he himself could help prevent the disease.

So, he took action through his widely read Sports Illustrated column. In May 2006, he entreated his far-reaching fan base to send $10 each to the United Nations Foundation. The donations were to pay for the purchase and distribution of bed nets, which can reduce transmission of malaria by up to 90 percent in some cases. He reached out to his audience by comparing the situation in Africa to one on their own soil.

“Three thousand kids!” he wrote. “That's a 9/11 every day!”

Within weeks, Logalbo said, several million dollars found their way to the UN’s doorstep. And just like that, Nothing But Nets was born.

“The impact of a simple bed net is incredible,” Logalbo said. “Once [Reilly] learned it was so simple to prevent malaria, that’s when he got the idea to ask his readers.”

Bringing simplicity to a complex issue like malaria is the key to Nets’ success, said Logalbo. So are powerful partnerships with sports stars like Reilly and Gutierrez.

Logalbo credits her organization’s partners, like the MLS, for getting their message out to so many contributors.
“These leagues and teams are actually reaching out to whole groups of people that we might never have reached otherwise,” Logalbo said.

Nets officials have seen a decrease in the average amount donated as the country’s economic crisis deepens, but they say the difference is offset by an increase in the number of donors.

“I think we’re in a good situation,” Logalbo said. “It is such a simple, tangible solution and a low enough price point that people can still get involved and have an impact with just $10, so we really haven’t felt the [negative] impact.”

Each $10 donation covers the production and delivery of one bed net, along with education about its use for the recipient. Overhead costs for the nonprofit are covered entirely by private funding, so public donations pay for, well, nothing but nets.

Logalbo said she saw firsthand what a difference a net makes on a recent delivery mission to Kenya. Along with fellow UN representatives and volunteers, she visited one of the largest refugee camps in the world. People at these camps, she said, are particularly vulnerable to dying from the disease because of poor living conditions and weakened immune systems.

On occasion, the UN Foundation’s partners travel to Africa, too, and that includes Gutierrez. He traveled with fellow MLS players to Mali in December 2007.

“The players come back just as incredibly strong advocates,” Logalbo said. “The Fire has been one of our best supporters.”

Though Gutierrez recently retired, his team maintains a strong commitment to the cause. Part of that outreach in the 2009 season will come from a text-to-give program, where soccer fans can donate through their cell phones, directly from the stands of Toyota Park. The Fire and other Nets’ partners will also reach out to the Chicago on World Malaria Day next month, to raise both funds and awareness.

But outreach to Chicago doesn’t stop there; the organization has also partnered with Chicago Public Schools and has the backing of Gov. Pat Quinn. It’s all part of Nets’ ultimate mission: to provide nets for each and every bed at all the refugee camps throughout Africa.

“Refugees come to a different place with whatever they can carry and, hopefully, their family, and they’re given maybe a plot of land, a sleeping mat, some kitchen supplies and a water jug,” Logalbo said. “They really have so little.”

“It’s really hard to imagine when you don’t get to see it first hand, but the impact of a simple bed net is incredible.”