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Fire's Gutierrez goes big time with his charitable work
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/19/2008 4:19 PM

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It says a lot about Diego Gutierrez and his wife, Ginna, that they're thinking about mosquitoes in February.

Mosquitoes in much more tropical climates than Chicago's carry malaria, and the anti-malaria campaign "Nothing But Nets" has become a full-time endeavor for the Gutierrez family, in addition to Diego's full-time job anchoring the Fire's defensive efforts.

"My wife and I, we sort of took it upon ourselves," he said, passing much of the credit to Ginna. "She's a loaded weapon for the good, man. They love her. I'm very proud of her."

It's a great feel-good story: a man born and raised in the South American nation of Colombia finds himself hobnobbing with American icons for his charitable work here and abroad. That work in the past 12 months has taken him and Ginna to the African nation of Mali, to the White House and to Seattle, where he spoke at a meeting of the Gates Foundation.

That's the Gates Foundation, as in Bill and Melinda Gates, who run the world's biggest philanthropic organization. The United Nations Foundation, ExxonMobil, the NBA and WNBA and the United Methodist Church also are involved. President Bush has been in Africa this week talking about malaria prevention, among other things.

"You're talking big, big players," he said.

Gutierrez helped Nothing But Nets raise $8 million in 2007, a figure matched by the Gates Foundation. The goal is to eradicate malaria, which kills 3,000 children every day, more than one million a year.

"There's an urgency right now in Africa. As a parent I can't ignore that fact that just because of where they were born these kids" can die from a preventable disease, said Gutierrez, 35, a father of three. "As a dad that affects me greatly."

The idea is simple: raise money to buy nets to put over the beds of children who live where mosquitoes carry malaria.

So Gutierrez, the Houston Dynamo's Dwayne De Rosario and Ruth Riley of the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars set out for Africa in December to get a first-hand look at the situation.

"We got out there, we observed everything, we documented, we took a film crew," he said before moving on to the plans for 2008. "We're going to use it as a major tool, not only for educating people and raising awareness but also fundraising. We're putting on a full-court press for this thing."

Gutierrez recommends the organization Web site, www.nothingbutnets.net, where he and Ginna are this week's organization MVPs and you can read his blog.

"It really explains how we are saving lives. That's what we're doing. For $10 we are saving lives," he said.

Soccer has been Gutierrez's first career the last 13 seasons, with charitable works a second, but he's looking for a new No. 1. The 2008 season will be his last in MLS, at least as a player. Maybe he'll stay involved with the Fire or the league. Maybe he'll try public service or politics.

"I have ideas," he said. "I have a lot of ideas. But we don't have a decision made at this point. It's not set in stone."

The only thing set in stone is that Gutierrez will continue saving something more important than goals.

"I will always be involved in this campaign until malaria is no longer a problem," he said. "The fact that I retire from soccer doesn't mean that I stop doing what I'm doing."

oschwarz@dailyherald.com