Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hoops Of Hope Takes Its Best Shot

Eight years ago, Arizona's Austin Gutwein saw a video that changed his life forever. He learned from the film that more than 15 million children would be orphaned by HIV/AIDS that year, and 12 million of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Gutwein was only a nine-year-old boy, he felt a profound connection to the children affected by AIDS in Africa. The way he saw it, those children weren't any different than him. Except, they suffered in a way he could never imagine. They had lost their parents.

"People think that kids can't really make a difference, that they should wait until they are older, but that is totally wrong," Gutwein said when he was nine. "You can do something as a kid."

On World AIDS Day in 2004, he shot 2,057 free throws to represent the 2,057 kids who would be orphaned during his school day. People sponsored him for his effort and he was able to raise $3,000. That year, the money was used to provide hope to eight orphaned children. But that year, Gutwein also learned that these children needed more than basic food and shelter. They needed an education.

"I told my dad that there has to be something we can do to help them," he had said. "I wanted to give other kids the opportunity to do something they could be proud of and then let them see the results of their effort."

From that year forward, he decided to shoot more free throws. And every year, he encouraged more and more American children to join him to raise funds for African children who lacked what he and his peers took for granted — food, shelter, parents, and an education.

Even in his earliest involvement, Gutwein wouldn't accept that there were limits to what could be accomplished. When his campaign raised enough funds to build a school, he became concerned how far the children would have to walk to make it.

Hoops Of Hope has grown into an international effort led by a 16-year-old.

To date, Hoops Of Hope participants have raised more than $2.5 million, helping the orphans of AIDS receive food, clothing, shelter, schools, dormitories, medical centers and, more than anything else, an opportunity to live productive lives. And at the same time, the participants are forever changed too.

As Gutwein's own efforts have expanded as a story of inspiration as well as a fundraising effort to ease the burden of AIDS orphans, the children and adults who participate learn how powerful becoming more involved in the world can be. Even more remarkable, listening to some of the testimonials from children as young as Gutwein was when he first started, it becomes clear they learn something else. They learn not to take anything for granted. Somewhere in the world, there are children who wish for those things.

"When you help somebody change their life, it changes yours," says Gutwein today. And sometimes that change can even be as small as giving someone a soccer ball on what has become one of many visits to Africa.

Interestingly enough, Gutwein wasn't even that good at basketball despite his love for the sport. But what he did learn, like many children who now participate in Hoops Of Hope, is that you don't have to be the best at something to do something extraordinary with it.

Today, the United Nations estimates that more than 5,700 children are orphaned every day because of HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that more than 15 million children have already lost one or both parents. The number is expected to grow to more than 20 million in the next few years, which is one of the reasons Gutwein's campaign has expanded in prevention.

Three years ago, Gutwein also wrote a book with Todd Hillard in the hope of inspiring others. Take Your Best Shot: Do Something Bigger Than Yourself, which chronicles his journey while challenging others to make a difference in the lives of others too. Although the book also carries a message of faith, the real message is one of seeing a goal and then being moved and motivated to accomplish it.

Hoops Of Hope By Austin Gutwein Is A Liquid Hip Good Will Pick.

At least once a month, Liquid [Hip] highlights good will efforts undertaken by courageous people with big hearts. We don't score them. That belongs to you.

Hoops Of Hope sets tangible goals every year, outlining exactly what Gutwein hopes to accomplish. Last year, he set goals that included feeding 1,000 children and building a community center in Malawi, building a dormitory in Kenya, building a computer lab in Zambia, providing scholarships for a high school, and digging boreholes in India. The site includes a listing of how to join an event or host one of your own.

Equally important is that Gutwein's message is one of motivation. He has spoken to hundreds of thousands of people on behalf of orphaned children in America and around the world, inspiring others to take their best shot and do something bigger than themselves. It could be something in support of Gutwein or even something on your own, closer to home.
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