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Pau Gasol passionate about UNICEF ambassador role

Hunched down on the ground, Pau Gasol leaned over and extended his hand.

In most circumstances, the Lakers forward does that to shoot a mid-range jumper, operate in the low post, dish off a nifty assist or block a shot. But Gasol’s versatility goes beyond his basketball skills. In this case, a two-year-old girl named Fatime clutched Gasol’s hand on Saturday while lying on a blanket with her older brother and mom at a hospital in Mao, a city in the African nation of Chad.

The girl represents a fraction of a sobering statistic. UNICEF officials said at least 1.1 million children in the Sahel region need treatment for severe acute malnutrition. The United Nations also estimated 18 million people are affected by a drought and food crisis in the nine countries surrounding that area. In what will mark his fourth trip as a UNICEF ambassador, Gasol will travel from village to village in Chad viewing and assisting feeding efforts in hopes of reducing those numbers. No matter how small.

“It’s important to know and have a chance to experience it and get knowledge so we can actually understand things better,” Gasol said in a phone interview with The Times. “When I go on these trips, I then have a better and more real opinion about it. It then creates more attention and brings more people to collaborate to help what’s going on here.”

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UNICEF has devoted $238 million in resources in fighting malnourishment in the Sahel region, providing more educational opportunities to dissuade children from joining rebel groups in Mali and mitigating cholera outbreaks. The organization says it has also secured $93 million for emergency response efforts. But as Gasol observed since joining the organization in 2003, the impact goes beyond money and numbers.

It also involves people.

Since arriving in Chad last Thursday, Gasol’s jumped from city to city eager to help. In N’Djamena, Gasol hosted a basketball clinic that he said featured bent rims, no nets and partially inflated balls. He made stops in Mao, Kanem and Miouh over the weekend to help set up food, water and sanitation stations. On Sunday afternoon, Gasol went to Wadi to help citizens there grow their own food.

“Chad is in an emergency situation and is going through an attrition crisis because of drugs, bad climate and a bad harvest,” Gasol said. “But it’s very encouraging with the work UNICEF’s doing. I’m happy to be here to witness it.”

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Other images struck Gasol when he traveled to South Africa (2005), Angola (2007) and Ethiopia (2010).

Gasol saw children in South Africa walking countless miles from their home just to attend school. With UNICEF estimating that 5.6 million people there have HIV, Gasol also helped distribute medicine in hopes of eradicating the virus.

Gasol also helped with HIV relief efforts in Angola, but noticed the “virus didn’t spread out as much” as it has in South Africa. Based on what UNICEF officials told Gasol, he said the 27-year-old civil war that ended in 2002 contributed to disjointed villages. This contributed to the virus affecting only 2% of the Angolan population. Still, Gasol encountered additional challenges in mitigating the HIV epidemic once Angola fully recovers from war. Even with citizens hugging him tightly as he entered a 3,000-person capacity gym in the city of Luanda, Gasol noticed some resisting his pleas to use birth control.

“Because of the culture, religion and traditions, some don’t believe in using that very often,” Gasol said. “Obviously you have to change certain things and certain behavior and that’s hard to change. But you have to let it be known so they can protect themselves and be aware of the importance of it.”

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Gasol showed further involvement on his Ethiopian trip.

A documentary produced by Spanish television station la Sexta shows Gasol frequently interacting with Ethiopian children. He dipped his finger in special formula and fed it to a malnourished year-old baby without a mother. Gasol held up a cup full of water for another baby to drink out of while his mother held him. Gasol viewed UNICEF officials taking body measurements of malnourished children. He routinely picked up the kids in his arms. Gasol even danced with them.

Gasol also parlayed that trip into what he calls “Pau’s project.” UNICEF said the 2-year-old initiative has rebuilt 80 schools for 12,000 children, equipped 21 education centers, trained 160 teachers and distributed various school supplies.

UNICEF officials tout Gasol’s history as a medical student at the University of Barcelona and enthusiasm as a perfect fit for the organization’s cause.

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“What really stands out is how seriously Pau takes his commitment as an ambassador,” said Paloma Escudero, the UNICEF executive director for the Spanish National Committee. “He’s a person who receives very thorough training. When he’s at briefings, he’s already prepared. He really goes to the papers and reads everything. It’s really something he believes he’s doing. He likes to travel because he feels he can be the voice of many kids who have no voice.”

Gasol’s shown that commitment beyond traveling to countries in need. He participated in El Rey Theater’s “Play List With the A-List,” in which celebrities sang karaoke to raise funds for UNICEF. Gasol sang the Fray’s “How to Save a Life.” Gasol also released an iBook this year in three different languages, with all proceeds benefiting UNICEF. Those efforts, along with his frequent visits to Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, earned Gasol the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award.

Yet, when he won that honor last season during the NBA playoffs, Gasol acknowledged uncertainty on whether he’d have enough energy to make a UNICEF trip after the 2012 Olympics. Once the Games ended on Aug. 12, however, Gasol said he told UNICEF officials, “You can count on me.”

“I wanted to collaborate with an organization that would allow me to have a big impact and draw people together and make a difference beyond myself,” Gasol said. ”That fulfillment made me feel very special and very lucky.”

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That young girl also must have felt lucky as Gasol reached out his large hand to help her.

ALSO:

Lakers’ Pau Gasol visits Chad’s Sahel region as UNICEF ambassador

Five things Pau Gasol needs for a successful season

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Pau Gasol’s work with Children’s Hospital affects patients in different ways

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com. Follow the Lakers blog on Twitter.


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