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Professional athlete discusses humanitarianism

| Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ruth Riley, a 2001 Notre Dame graduate and former Notre Dame women’s basketball player, came to the Eck Center last night to give the lecture “From Professional Athlete to Humanitarian: How I Became involved in the Fight Against Poverty and Disease,” an event organized by the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity.         
“It’s up to us as individuals how much we want to be engaged,” Riley said. “I learned very quickly that I wanted to utilize the platform I have [as an athlete] to make a difference.
“People ask me what makes me different than most professional athletes — why do I spend time doing what I do? I would say it’s simply how I prioritize my time.”
Riley said seeing the lives of those living in malaria-stricken countries left her overwhelmed after her time as a spokeswoman for Nothing but Nets, a charity dedicated to preventing the spread of malaria.
“I’m in a clinic and there’s a mother there who is holding a child who is dying of malaria,” said Riley. “She told me she already lost one of her children.
“For me, I’ve never been a mother. I didn’t know what it felt like, and I felt so inadequate in that moment to help her.”
On a trip to Nairobi as a spokeswoman for a Global Business Coalition for tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria, Riley said her experiences opened her up to the terrible social impact of disease.
“Nothing can prepare you for the reality of what life is like in the slums of Nairobi,” she said. “I got a crash course in the feminization of AIDS.
“Women were being raped by a rate of 50 percent or more, largely by the rumor that raping a virgin [would cure AIDS], so women were being raped at a very young age. Women had no rights.”   
There is a disconnect — a “spoil factor” — between those who are able to help and those who need aid keeping progress from going as quickly as possible, Riley said.          
“A lot of professional athletes surround themselves with people that aren’t directed on the path of giving back to others,” she said. “We have things like health care and talk about things like movies.
“Mothers [in these countries], they don’t expect their kids to live beyond the age of five. The leadership in a lot of these countries is so corrupt, and information and knowledge is power and they don’t even have access to that.”
Even with the multitude of obstacles and countless variables in these countries that require consideration, Riley said maintaining optimism is vital to maintaining progress.
“There are so many factors like corruption and ignorance that keep the cycle of crime and poverty in place,” said Riley. “It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the obstacles and the contributing factors when you’re working with HIV…so it’s really necessary to focus and celebrate the small steps you make on the way.”

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