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Arizona junior raises $2.2 million … by shooting free throws

Fundraising is a fairly integral part of the high school experience for any number of American teenagers. Scholastic athletes are no exception, and occasionally particularly touching charity efforts -- like the one completed in April by Massachusetts teen Mike Slonina  -- emerge that make a difference socially and economically.

Gilbert (Ariz.) Christian School soccer player Austin Gutwein took his fundraising efforts to an entirely different level. The high school junior started an international fundraising effort that has raised some $2.2 million since it began when Gutwein shot more than 2,000 basketball free throws by himself as a 9-year-old.

Wait, $2 million? Really?

Really.

Gutwein's story goes something like this: At the age of 9 he saw a video about how AIDS affects children in Africa. Distraught, he went to his parents and said he wanted to make a difference. His parents put him in touch with a representative for the Christian charity organization World Vision, which asked Gutwein point blank what he wanted to do. Gutwein said he wanted to play basketball. The World Vision official suggested he play basketball for charity.

The idea stuck, and Gutwein decided to shoot 2,057 free throws, one for each child who becomes an orphan due to AIDS during an average school day on the African continent. Taking up the name "Hoops of Hope," Gutwein's solo effort raised roughly $3,000.

Gutwein told his friends about his charity shoot-a-thon, and they told their friends. Soon word was spreading, and within a year the pre-teen had 1,000 other kids signing up to shoot 2,057 free throws and raise money to help African children orphaned by AIDS.

To say that Hoops of Hope has snowballed is an understatement. As more and more media outlets have taken notice of Gutwein's charity, more and more volunteers have signed up to shoot free throws. That has raised more and more money, eventually pushing the total since Gutwein's first one-man free-throw adventure above the shocking aforementioned $2 million total.

The East Valley Tribune in Arizona reported that the charity has singlehandedly built a school and two medical clinics in Zambia, multiple orphanages in Swaziland and a comprehensive clean water system in Kenya. None of that accounts for the numerous other supplies donated each year with the funds raised by teenagers shooting free throws across the country.

Amazingly, Gutwein has continued to oversee the effort, even as he continues high school and tries to spread the word about the charity as often as he can, through speaking engagements, a book and any other way to get attention for Hoops of Hope and other African needs.

"There wasn't really a time when we realized that this picked up steam," Gutwein told the East Valley Tribune. "It just grew and grew and grew. Honestly, I was kind of shocked that it even worked at first."

While the gravity of all that his charity has accomplished still shocks Gutwein from time to time, he says the first time he realized just how much of an impact Hoops of Hope was having was when he arrived at the high school the charity built in Zambia.

"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."

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