July 13, 2011

Ruth Riley: Fighting to Save Lives

She gazed down a long, hot corridor of hopelessness. Rows and rows of mothers holding malaria-stricken children. Faces of malnourishment staring at her. Flies swarming. People waiting for hours … to see a doctor.

In the unsanitized gloom of the Nigerian pediatric ward, desperation filled a sweatbox of suffocating humidity. Beads of perspiration trickled down infants flush with disease. Strips of white tape affixed to foreheads bore names of the ill. Tiny limbs hung limp.

Silver Stars center Ruth Riley blinked in disbelief. “I’m not a mother,” she says, “but it pulled at your heart. It was a life-changing experience.”

That was Riley’s first glimpse of malaria, a disease with a horrifying trail: 200 million illnesses and one million deaths a year, mostly among children under the age of 5. In Africa, 10 new cases of malaria manifest every second.

It was in 2006 that Riley began fighting to save lives. At the invitation of the NBA and WNBA, she toured villages and hospitals in Nigeria, and witnessed the ravages of malaria. She also witnessed the hope. A single insecticide-treated bed net can shield a family of four from mosquitoes, carriers of the blood parasite that causes malaria.

For $10 per bed net, no mosquito bites, no malaria. Riley has carried that message for five years as a national spokesperson for Nothing But Nets. She creates awareness about malaria, shares the good news -- “Nets save lives” -- and raises money.

“Once you see the gratitude on the face of a mother who gets a net,” Riley says, “you never forget it. They are so appreciative. You are giving them hope. You are giving them life. It’s powerful.”

Riley is an ideal messenger, a voice with a platform, heart and a commanding presence. Her playing career has been like a ball spinning on the tip of a finger. Dazzling. She’s played on two WNBA championship teams, won a Finals MVP award, made an All-Star appearance and claimed an Olympic gold medal.

Away from the game, Riley immerses herself in humanitarian causes. She has traveled to South Africa on behalf of TRIAD Trust, a non-profit dedicated to reducing AIDS-related deaths, and participated in the nation’s sports programs. She has blogged about her visits. In one post, she wrote:

“Our objective is to first and foremost educate the coaches and the players on how the disease is transmitted, how it can be prevented, and the methods of treatment. Secondly, we spend time doing team-building exercises, role-playing, and round-table discussions about how these coaches and players can be better leaders and role-models in their communities.”

It is impossible not to notice Riley in a room. At 6-foot-4 1/2, she is an unmistakable presence, a woman secure in her height and unafraid to share her story of adolescent awkwardness. She stood 6-feet tall at 12-years-old. Children teased her. Adults assumed she could play ball. But she recalls spending more time on the bench than on the court in middle school.

Riley developed her skill set in high school and began to dominate. She led Notre Dame to the national championship and became the fifth pick in the 2001 WNBA draft. Inspired by her Christian faith and role model-mother, Riley devoted herself to charitable causes. Then came an invitation to visit the African nations of Nigeria, Angola and Mali.

She drops a ball through one net and raises money for bed nets. Most Americans, she knows, do not understand malaria’s toll. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was formed in 1946 to combat malaria. Five years later, the disease was eradicated in the U.S. Generations have grown up in post-malaria America with scant knowledge of the disease. Every 45 seconds it claims one child in Africa.

When Riley joined the fight six years ago, malaria took one African child every 30 seconds. “So our efforts are making a difference,” she says.

From the CDC Web site: “Insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) are a form of personal protection that has been shown to reduce malaria illness, severe disease and death due to malaria in endemic regions In community-wide trials in several African settings, ITNs have been shown to reduce the death of children under 5 years from all causes by about 20%.”

Later in July -- Thursday the 29th -- Riley will conduct a wine-tasting fundraiser for Nothing But Nets at The Palm, a Houston Street restaurant.

“I’ve been blessed to have been on great teams,” Riley says. “It is amazing to win a championship. But I think having the ability to use that platform for something greater than the sport gives you a lasting satisfaction. You don’t have to be a pro athlete to make a difference.”

Consider the story of Katherine Commale. After watching a PBS program on malaria at age 5, she and her mother made a bed net presentation to their church in Pennsylvania. Five years later, the Commale’s have raised more than $180,000 for bed nets.

Riley, 31, speaks in awe of young Katherine, a child reaching across the world to save others. Though far apart in age, these two are kindred spirits. They share a cause, a message and a bond -- teammates in the fight against malaria.