At the beginning of each high school sports season, coaches are asked to identify noteworthy players on their teams. It usually has to do with accomplishments on the field.
When Gilbert Christian soccer player Austin Gutwein heard about this, he couldn’t resist asking if that’s why he was mentioned.
“Oh, so (coach Chad McNichol) called me a top player, huh?” Gutwein said.
“No,” a reporter answered. “Are you?”
“Not really,” Gutwein joked. “I had to come to a small Christian school just to make the cut.”
The 16-year-old junior knows his story isn’t about his soccer prowess. It’s about his worldwide-charity prowess.
Seven years ago, a 9-year-old Gutwein watched a school video about the effect of AIDS on families in Africa and how it left many children orphaned at a young age.
Gutwein knew he wanted to do something to help.
When he got home that day, he told his parents, Dan and Denise, about his desire to make a difference. Austin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so Dan called Dana Buck, a representative of the relief organization World Vision, and asked for suggestions.
“(Buck) said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Dan Gutwein said. “(Austin) said, ‘Play basketball.’ He said, ‘OK, then play basketball for kids.’ And that’s how it all got started.”
Gutwein decided on a free-throw shooting benefit to raise funds for AIDS orphans.
He shot them alone the first time, 2,057 free throws to represent the average number of children who became orphans each school day. Gutwein raised $3,000 to donate to the cause.
“I didn’t know what life would be like without my parents,” Gutwein said. “At the end of the video, it said that 15 million kids had been orphaned because of AIDS. It just kind of blew me away. I wanted to do something to make a difference.”
He wasn’t done. The next year, his Hoops of Hope idea spread, and suddenly 1,000 kids were signed up to shoot free throws and donate funds. It was mostly word-of-mouth, as old friends in California and his new church in Arizona joined the cause.
Soon, news outlets were picking up on his story, and in each successive year, more and more people joined the cause. Since he began this venture in 2004, Gutwein said his charity has raised more than $2.2 million.
Nowadays, 40,000 kids spread out through 30 countries participate in Hoops of Hope.
“There wasn’t really a time when we realized that this picked up steam,” Gutwein said. “It just grew and grew and grew. Honestly, I was kind of shocked that it even worked at first.”
The funds have helped a variety of causes. Hoops of Hope has built a school and two medical clinics in Zambia, a pair of Orphan Hope Centers in Swaziland, a water system in Kenya, and supplied backpacks, mosquito nets and bicycles to kids in need, among numerous other charity acts.
As news spread, Gutwein’s been featured in magazines, TV shows, newspapers and radio. In 2009, Gutwein teamed with Todd Hilliard to write a book called, “Take Your Best Shot.” Dan Gutwein estimates it’s sold between 75,000 and 80,000 copies.
After the charity took off, Austin was asked to speak at various engagements around the world, and he’s been a busy teenager ever since.
He’s been to Kenya, China, Rwanda, Uganda, Botswana, India and several other countries in the past three years.
He went to Africa for the first time at age 13 when his charity raised enough money to build a high school in Zambia, where previously there wasn’t one within 70 miles.
“These kids were going to elementary school, and that was as high as their education went,” Gutwein said. “They had no chance of going to a university and actually getting a good job. To see how happy these people were to have a chance to do that, to get above that poverty line, it was awesome.
“It all happened because we shot some baskets. That was the mind-boggling thing about it.”
The gravity of what Austin was doing first hit him as he watched his son speak at an international issues summit in Luxembourg in 2007.
It was Austin’s first major speaking engagement. Next to him, Denise was crying with pride.
“I remember sitting in the audience, and I was just thinking, ‘Who is this kid?’” Dan said. “He was like a different person. He fielded questions from the audience, and Austin was just nailing them. That was the first time I realized that Austin had a God-given gift to share his heart.”
The various speeches around the world have stretched Gutwein thin.
He missed soccer practices and games this year because of the hectic schedule. Keeping up on schoolwork is a challenge.
“I try to make it up on the plane, make it up whenever I can,” Gutwein said. “It’s worth it to me. It’s fun to be able to go around and help others know that they can make a difference.”
Still, it’s a fine line in allowing Austin to thrust himself into the charities and allow some rest to, you know, be a kid.
“We try to monitor it a little bit,” Dan said. “I probably turn down three speaking engagements for every one we accept, just because he can’t do everything. We try to make it normal.”
Austin is only a junior, so he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do for a living. He would like to go to college, but after that, isn’t sure if he wants to dedicate himself full-time to Hoops of Hope, or go down a different road.
Whatever he chooses, though, he’s off to an impressive start.
“I just know that in this world,” Gutwein said, “I want to make an impact.”
For more information on Hoops of Hope visit http://www.hoopsofhope.org.