Middle school girls turn hoops into life-saving nets

(NOTE: THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE IN 2007).

By Will Martin
@wmartin89

Finally, it feels like January. After several weeks of unrepentant sunshine, the cold and wet have ushered in a South Carolina winter over the Beaufort Academy campus. In a word, it’s miserable.

It’s on such a Thursday that veteran educator Bill Gabrielson has invited me over to discuss two of his passions — basketball and benevolence — and how he’s managed to combine the two in the hearts of some teenage girls. In the end, though, we talk a lot about nets.

On the same Thursday in Gulu, Uganda, the temperature’s peaked at 84 degrees. It’s humid, but tolerable. Here, a sea of children sleep in an open, concrete bay, packed tightly enough to squeeze out any hope for space or privacy. They’ve fled to the city to escape enslavement in the rebel army that prowls the countryside, but another adversary awaits: the mosquito.

Working from person to person, insects carry malaria. Malaria literally reads “bad air” in the original Italian. Fitting, because in Africa, the mosquito-saturated air is very bad — lethal, really. The Centers for Disease Control estimate malaria kills over one million lives globally each year. Of those deaths, 90 percent are African children. Virtually every death is preventable, and it all comes down to nets.

GLOBAL CRISIS, LOCAL SOLUTION

Basketball coaches don’t care much for air, either. Too often, “air” means somebody missed – badly. They prefer nets. Nothing but nets. The analogy isn’t lost on Gabrielson, BA’s middle school girls basketball coach.

“One of the goals you have for your shooter is that they hit nothing but nets, so, it just seemed like a natural carryover,” said Gabrielson, describing the Nothing but Nets program he introduced to his team this season to help send live-saving bed nets to Africa.

Though Gabrielson brought the program to Beaufort, he’s not the creator. That honor goes to “Sports Illustrated” columnist Rick Reilly, who teamed with the United Nations Foundation last May to kick off what has become a global grassroots campaign.

Nets 2.jpgThe program is as simple as it is well-meaning: Send in $10, enough to buy one bed net for an African family. Each insecticide-coated net protects about four people for around four years. In essence, 10 bucks saves four lives. To those who normally live on one dollar a day, a bed net’s not a gift, it’s salvation.

“I wasn’t sure how they were going to take it,” said Gabrielson, reflecting on his team’s reaction when he described the program to the players and their parents. To his delight, they ran with it.

“When Coach Gabrielson told our team about Nothing but Nets, I just could not believe things like this go on in the real world,” said eighth-grade player Minda Backus. “You just do not hear of it. I realized that this program was a good cause because we are the saving the lives of so many children.”

The program works a little different with the BA girls than with the national program. At BA, relatives and friends of the players sponsor the team for a game, or maybe two or three. Every time the team gets a point, sponsors throw another dollar into the program. The more the girls hit net, the more nets go to Africa.

Sixth grader Laura Roddey breaks down the math: “Every point we make is a dollar. So, if we made 22 points, the person would pay $22. Every 10 dollars we make will save up to four to five people’s lives.”

SAVING LIVES, OPENING MINDS

Practically, Gabrielson wants to see the girls save lives. Personally, he hopes to transform the way their view the world.

“Adolescents, typically, are focused on their own lives,” said Gabrielson, speaking now with a thoughtful intensity that testifies to his 44 years as an educator. “The fact is that most of the people benefiting from the program, ultimately, in Africa, are children. So, you have children helping children, children from a middle- to upper-class background, something that they’re not always attuned to.”

Gabrielson hopes that in his players’ paradigms, the “provincial” gives way to the “cosmopolitan.” He hopes they will ask themselves that defining question: “Will it matter that I was?” By participating in programs such as Nothing But Nets, he hopes they will learn that “serving yourselves well and serving others aren’t mutually exclusive.”

In the end, he hopes they get it.

“Most other teams love to score points so that they can win. It is the same for us, but we also think about the poor people in Africa when we score,” said sixth-grader Carly Smyth. “Nothing but Nets has opened my eyes to all the terrible things happening from Malaria.”

Said seventh-grader Gwendolyn Stoll: “I think that we are a role model for other people in America and all over the world.”

Added sixth-grader Mary Catherine Carmody: “With each basket I realize that making the most points or getting my name in the newspaper isn’t what matters. What matters is helping people.”

Opened eyes. Role models. Helping people. They get it, coach.

Info/How to help:For more information on the Nothing But Nets national program, go online to: www.nothingbutnets.net.

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