I first heard about Austin Gutwein from a friend of mine, John Yeager, a fine reporter who put down his reporter's notebook a few years back, and now works for World Vision, the worldwide relief organization in Washington State. I called John looking for story ideas and he said, "You've got to meet this kid, he's like Buddha."
He was right, as you'll see in tonight's "Making a Difference" report on Nightly News.
It is easy to like Austin; he is a fun loving and easy going 12-year-old kid. He also is a bit unsettling -- unlike most 12-year-olds, he seems to not only know where he's going, but how to get there and have fun in the process. His father Dan, a salesman for Intel, says that Austin started showing an unusual sensitivity for others at a young age. "The first thing I remember was when he was six, and he heard about a program for the homeless," says Dan.
The family was living in California and Austin heard an ad for the Orange County Mission. It said the mission could feed a homeless person a Thanksgiving meal for $1.23. Austin went home and raided all the coin jars in the house, put the change in a Ziploc bag, and presented it to his parents. "He told us we needed to take this to the mission," his Dad says, "and so we did." Austin had enough money to feed 20 people.
I asked Dan Gutwein about his son's evolved sense of charity. Where does it come from? He smiled. "I don't know, but he's always been an amazing, passionate kid."
In fairness, Austin's Mom Denise, Dad and church probably had a lot to do with it. The family's church was Saddleback Christian, their minister was Rick Warren, bestselling author of "The Purpose Driven Life." Warren encouraged his congregation to do great things, and help people who needed help. It was after just such a sermon the Gutweins signed up to sponsor two African children through World Vision. One of those children was a boy from Uganda named Ignatius - Austin's future pen pal who would begin to focus Austin on Africa.
When Austin first told his parents that he wanted to raise money for AIDS orphans by shooting baskets, his parents helped put together a Web site for Austin's Hoops of Hope, but never thought much would come of it.
"I remember the first night I told Denise we might have to be the anonymous donor online every night, saying, 'Hey look Austin! Someone donated anonymously again!' But we never did," recalls Dan.
Austin raised $3,000 that year.
World Vision helped a lot - hosting his Web site and offering advice and support. Austin began getting noticed. Local TV and newspapers did stories about him. Austin spoke with Rick Warren at a national conference on HIV/AIDS. By the time his second Hoops of Hope arrived, Austin had signed up more than 1,000 kids. They raised $38,000.
Austin believes Hoops of Hope works because kids his age just want a chance to do something great. "They think it's awesome and a lot jump on board and want to be a part of something like this. They want to make a difference, and it is something that they can do at the age of 12 or 13."
When Austin told World Vision he wanted to do something even bigger this year, World Vision told him about a proposed school for HIV/AIDS orphans in Zambia. It was going to be dedicated to a World Vision staffer, Johnathan Sim, who had passed away in 2005. The school would also be an orphanage, housing 450 students and teachers. Some money had been raised, but World Vision needed at least $60,000 more to build the school. Austin decided he wanted to build the school. "I'm not out there to find a cure for AIDS, I'm out there to help the kids who are orphaned by it," he says.
In fact, Austin had only a rough idea of what AIDS was when he began. "I know it is a disease that when it gets to parents it kills them, and I feel that pain that the kids feel -- waking up and their parent are dead. (They) are left on their own to care for their many brothers and sisters."
His father thinks there is an important lesson in what Austin and 1,000 other kids are doing. "Does he understand all the details and all the politics around AIDS?" asks Dan. "No. (The kids) don't ask all these detailed questions about, how did you get this way? Or, how did you get AIDS. They don't want to figure out, how do we get funding to support this? They just went out and did it."
World Vision now says, because of Austin, they have enough to break ground for the school in the spring. Not bad for a kid who first decided to do something at the age of nine. "When I first heard about this, Uganda seemed like a totally different planet, but this is something that I realized that if you do just the littlest, littlest thing you can make a difference, and that's what I'm trying to do," he says.
I spent a day with Austin and his family and found them inspiring. His story, I believe, challenges us all. The first thing I thought as I drove to the airport was: "What was I doing when I was 12?" And then, of course, the next thought: "What, exactly, am I doing now?"