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    ON THE RECORD ... With Al Netter

    NUSPORTSDOTCOM Al Netter working in the fields in Guatemala.
    Al Netter working in the fields in Guatemala.

    April 21, 2010


    For the majority of the trip it was collecting cow manure out in the fields of Guatemala, which was quite an experience. Not quite what I expected for spring break. Some people decided to go the Cancun, party route. But I decided to go the Guatemala, manure-picking route.

    That was indeed the choice of 'Cat offensive lineman Al Netter, who recounts his remarkable week at a Guatemalan orphanage On The Record with Special Contributor Skip Myslenski ...

    The program was through Northwestern. It was through a group called ASB, which is Alternative Student Breaks.

    I had a friend who had mentioned it to me before. As a football player, you never really get an opportunity to study abroad, which a lot of my non-athlete friends are able to do during their college careers. So I was looking for an opportunity to go abroad and to get a little bit of that experience.

    I applied in the fall for the class. You took a class on a specific social subject. The one I applied for was childhood poverty. With each class was a service trip during spring break that relates to those different issues that you studied in the course.

    I didn't really know much childhood poverty before the course. But I learned it is a huge issue globally and even here in the United States, where you wouldn't expect it since we're such a developed country. But it really is a problem we face every day.

    The educational problems that exist, the nutritional problems, the health care problems. There's a lot of stuff like that.

    It's a lot different when you read it in a book and then see it first hand. You don't really have that emotional attachment. It's just not as real as when you're actually there in the setting where you see it and it's extremely prevalent. It just really hits you. It's real.



    On our descent (into Guatemala City), just looking down, the houses were built on top of each other, one after the other up on these hills. Everybody is just so concentrated. It's so overpopulated.

    I was just thinking about how crazy it is. You see, 10 minutes, 15 minutes outside of the city on the plane, it's all green. It's like the most beautiful setting you've seen. Then, as you get closer, it's just more and more city, more and more people. Real interesting. I was speechless ... (and then) excited to get in and see how the city was built and see how the city worked.

    You definitely see what we here in the United States think of as poor is completely different from there. What we consider poor here is normal there. It's what the working class is there.

    Once we got to the orphanage in Rio Dulce, which was about six hours away, we saw that people worked on the farm and that was their job. A real simple life. They have a few clothes that they wear and maybe a few animals.

    We actually took the Greyhound of Guatemala, but it's crazy. The buses you're talking about, which are the public transportation in the city, you wouldn't be able to imagine how they could fit that many people in the bus. People were hanging out the window. People were running, jumping on, jumping off. It was just hectic. Ridiculous.

    There's actually a lady, she owns and manages a hostel that is on the river. She's also the founder of the orphanage. Basically, pretty much all the proceeds from the hostel ... go toward the orphanage. It's really a cool system the way they have it set up.

    Donations come through the hostel, which is also where we stayed. It's about a 20-minute boat ride from the orphanage. All the food donations come from there. They work hand-in-hand with each other.

    The orphanage has a generator that gives them power from seven in the morning 'til eight at night. So they can't refrigerate food there. So all their refrigerated food is (at the hostel) and they boat it over real early every morning for the meals they prepare there.

    A typical day was wake up at 6:30, eat breakfast at the hostel and, at 7 o'clock, load the boats that would take us to the orphanage. There were people who worked for the orphanage (with them). Armando was our driver for most of the week. We formed a really good relationship with him.

    It was funny. He was like one of the most stern, serious guys you ever met. But throughout the week, he kind of opened up to us. I don't think I saw him smile until the last couple of days when he started joking with us. But a really good, genuine guy helping out at the orphanage. You could tell he loves the kids and did it for the kids. But he didn't show it on the outside, which was kind of funny.

    We would get to the orphanage around 7:30 and meet with the coordinator and she would direct us to what we were going to be doing during the day. Then we'd get started about 8 a.m.

    We would try to switch it up. I went with 13 other people from Northwestern and we would split it up kind of into half days. Half the group would go teach, work with the English classes, the P.E. classes, in the kitchen, stuff around the orphanage. The other group would go out to the farm. Hector was the leader of the farm and the majority of the time I was in the farm. It was more physical labor and they needed bigger, stronger people there.

    Basically, the only food they get is what they grow there and what they get donated. So there are times when they are short on food and the kids get to eat only the bare minimum. So it's very important to them to have these farms and make sure they function well. So our project was to help on the farm.

    The ground there's not great. It was really clay, clay-like.

    When we first got there, Hector told us, "OK. We need to go about 30 minutes away to a different village and get some manure to help make the land better to grow." They were going to plant a bunch of new fruit trees for crops. So I'm thinking to myself, "OK. This will be interesting. We'll go 30 minutes. We'll buy some packaged stuff. We'll throw it on our shoulders. It'll be kinda disgusting, but we'll walk it back."

    We walk 30 minutes away and Hector's got a bunch of bags under his arms. We get there and he stops us and he goes, "OK. Here's your bags. The poop's out there in the field. Start picking it up."

    I had no idea that's what we'd be doing.

    We had gloves.

    At first he told us just to get the dry ones. The wet ones will soak into your fabric and stain it and make it smell bad. But after the third day, we ran out of dry cow manure and we had to start picking up the wet stuff. So it got a little more disgusting as the trip went on.

    The bags were probably like 60 pounds each. At one point I had to carry three on my back and they're awkwardly shaped. It was pretty rough. Dripping sweat, exhausted, dehydrated by the time you got back to the orphanage.

    At some points, there were only five of us doing it, which made it pretty brutal. It just made it longer and longer. When he were out there, Hector wasn't going to sell us short. We were going to get as much as we could.

    He would calculate. He said three bags for me, two for the other guys, one for each of the girls and he could carry two. We would have to get that many bags every trip.

    The girls were definitely great workers.

    But, you know, it was really cool to see it at the end of the week. We got a huge amount of manure, so he could fill this huge area in preparation of planting all these new trees.

    It was amazing to see Hector, the lead farmer. He would wake up at the crack of down and just work so hard. It was amazing to see that. No deadline, minimum wage, just doing it for the orphanage, wanting to help the kids. He was the hardest, most-diligent worker I've ever seen in my life. You could not believe it.

    One of the days we collected manure for a couple of hours, we were just exhausted. It had to have been the high 80s, low 90s, and it's humid too. We were just exhausted. It's rough out there. But we picked the manure, walked back 30 minutes to the farm, threw it over the fence and he goes, "You guys go get lunch and come back when you're done."

    We started walking away and I looked back and he just started unloading. He kept working. It was ridiculous.

    It made me learn a lot about myself and how my work ethic could be better.

    Look at the situation I'm in. Why can't I be that kind of a worker when I'm so much luckier in so many aspects of my life? It was really cool to work with him and get to know him.

    The other part of the trip was teaching the P.E. classes and just spending time with the kids.

    A lot of the kids were telling me that I was the biggest person they'd ever seen in their entire life. So I was a huge hit with the kids. They were always on me to hold them up by my arms, or to pull them up, or to throw them up in the air. Everywhere I went people were making comments about my size, just joking with me about my size. It was cool.

    They loved the fact that I played American football. A lot of the kids didn't know much about it, so when we ran P.E. classes, we showed them about the rules and how to play. It was kind of cool. But the kids, they liked futbol better than American football.

    They don't have enough resources or money to give each kid a separate birthday party, so they'll do a birthday month and everyone who has a birthday that month gets a party that day. We were lucky enough to be there on one of those days.

    That day we took the kids an hour-and-a-half away to this place called Rio Frio. It was an hour-and-a-half walk through the fields and the jungle.

    There are about 150 kids who live there permanently and then there's another 100 who come from different villages who have parents. So on this day we had about 250 kids that we walked from the orphanage to the Rio Frio and they spent the entire day swimming.

    At night we came back and celebrated their birthdays and had a dance for them. It was really cool.

    There were babies as young as five months and they went up to 14 or 15, until they're ready to go to high school.

    The kids were great. You have no idea how well-behaved these kids were and just how full of life they were. They brushed their teeth after every meal. They did their own dishes after every meal. After class everyday, they swept all the grounds and they cleaned all the bathrooms. After the age of 10, every kid washes his own clothes. They're given so much responsibility at such a young age, it's amazing to see.

    And they were the best, most well-behaved kids. I've been around kids here in the United States who constantly fight or bicker, video games, texting. These kids, they have nothing. They get a chance to go play soccer outside, they're ecstatic, they love it, they're so passionate about it. They don't fight. Amazing kids.

    Crazy for the situation that they're in that they're just so happy all the time.

    I would only eat meals at the orphanage during the day, at lunch. Basically what they do, it's a ton of rice, black beans and tortilla and every once in awhile they'll throw in some vegetables. They said they would make up to 5,000 tortillas a day because the kids are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner there. They have beans and rice and tortillas for every meal.

    The kids only eat meat once every couple months.

    We were actually there when they killed and slaughtered a cow. So they were able to eat meat when we were there, for the birthday.

    I didn't actually see it, but a lot of people in our group it. It was not as humane as you'd want. It took awhile to kill it. They were stabbing it and missing the heart and there was suffering. I don't know. It was just a bad story.

    I ate some of the cow they killed and it was really good. But some of the girls became vegetarians after witnessing it.

    I think I lost about five pounds. We were able to eat at the hostel, where they had a little more variety, and I brought a ton of protein bars. I knew it would be hard to get meals there.

    There were a few kids I formed pretty good relationships with, the younger teen ones. You could tell they looked up to me, considered me a role model. But it's hard.

    What I learned on the trip is these kids, they never really have that permanent adult figure to look up to. Even the long-term volunteers who stay there, they stay for a year, two at most. People are always coming in and out of their lives, so what I felt is they were a little reluctant to put themselves out there and get close to people.

    But you could really tell, between themselves, they were really close. They'd been there since they were young and the relationships between them were really strong.

    I definitely formed some good relationships. It was hard to leave them. It was pretty emotional, I would say. Just to know, OK, we worked here for a week and we're going back to our normal routine. But these kids, tomorrow they're going to wake up in these beds and eat this food and be without parents and do the same thing everyday. It's just ridiculous.

    I've done a lot of thinking. You know, just to be thankful for the things I have and take the opportunities I have and make the most of them. Definitely my attitude's changed since the trip. I don't really take much for granted anymore.

    The daily things that I have everyday. The warm water that we didn't have there. The meals that we eat in the N Club everyday. The opportunity to play football at a great university. To know that people can be so happy without these kinds of opportunities makes you step back and think, "Wow, I'm one of the luckiest people in the world and, for myself and for others, I need to really take advantage of this."

    I had been on different spring break trips. I'd been home, I'd been to the Bahamas and those were fun opportunities. But what do you really get out of them? I have some memories from them, but they're just memories, you know. With this trip, I wanted something more.

    I honestly didn't know what to expect going into the trip. I had no idea it was going to make this big of an impact on me.

    It kind of makes me, it does make me want to get out there more and do more for the community here. Going back to the opportunities I have, I'm so lucky. I just feel I can help others now more than I did before.