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Trip to Kenya gives Jay Cutler a big dose of perspective

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Oftentimes, wrapped up in the busyness of one’s own life, a person’s perspective might need to be reset.

That happened constantly during Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s two-week trip last month to Kenya with the non-profit OneKid OneWorld, including on a visit to the small town of Wamba in the Rift Valley that had been without water for 2½ months. Locals are forced to travel long distances — often by walking — to get the precious resource, and many get sick from drinking contaminated water.

‘‘It cost us $300 to provide for water for a few months,’’ Cutler said before pausing for a moment.

‘‘After all the turmoil we go through here, everyone thinks we have so many problems. But to see what they have to deal with and to see how grateful they are to have water is just amazing.’’

Cutler didn’t clarify whether ‘‘here’’ meant the United States, Chicago or his household. He had endured some recent hardships, struggling early in the NFC Championship Game, missing nearly the entire second half with a knee injury, then being vilified by many analysts, fans and even players.

But what he learned and witnessed in Kenya, nearly 10,000 miles from Los Angeles, left an indelible mark on him.

‘‘I’ve never been to Africa,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘You see it on TV, but until you’re there and you see it with your own eyes, you have no idea.

‘‘It was an amazing experience to see what they have to go through. It puts a lot of things in perspective for you.’’

‘Negative fancy’

Toward the end of the 2010 season, Cutler talked to his girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari, about the trip to Kenya with OneKid OneWorld. But he didn’t get serious until he headed to Los Angeles after the Bears’ season ended in the NFC title game at Soldier Field.

As they do with all their volunteers, OneKid OneWorld wanted to make sure Cutler knew what to expect.

‘‘We didn’t have a relationship with him, and we wanted him to know it wasn’t fancy,’’ said Tracy McCubbin, the co-executive director of OneKid OneWorld. ‘‘It’s negative fancy.’’

Established in 2006, OneKid OneWorld is a modest but growing non-profit that’s proud to have funneled 95 percent of the $450,000 it has raised to benefit students and teachers in El Salvador and Kenya.

To that end, the organization doesn’t pay for four-star hotels, opting instead for modest dorms.

‘‘We sat down and had a meeting with [Cutler], and he was game every step of the way,’’ McCubbin said.

McCubbin had traveled to El Salvador with Cavallari last year and ‘‘worked her to the bone.’’

‘‘So [Cutler] knew what it was about,’’ McCubbin said.

But leaders of OneKid OneWorld still were impressed with Cutler’s commitment to their cause. At an all-girls school and orphanage, Cutler was left alone in a classroom full of high school students. When other volunteers later returned, they discovered Cutler teaching the girls physics.

‘‘Jay was so into it,’’ McCubbin said. ‘‘He’s so amazing with kids.’’

Cutler and Cavallari encouraged students to pursue any career they desired, played assorted sports with them and painted classrooms and murals.

Cutler marveled at the spirit of the students he interacted with, and he marveled at the challenges they face in even going to class because of family obligations.

‘‘They have 1,000 reasons not to go to school,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘But you could tell how grateful they were for the opportunity.’’

Spirit of giving

Cutler is torn about his approach toward community relations. Fiercely private, he would prefer to donate his money and his time without fanfare or media coverage, as he did when he handed out Christmas gifts to patients at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital in December.

But he also recognizes the importance of raising funds and awareness, particularly because he has the Jay Cutler Foundation, which is dedicated to underprivileged children and those suffering from diabetes.

‘‘I want to give back as much as possible,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘I understand you want to bring as much publicity as possible; that’s how you raise money. At the same time, you have to do it for the right reasons.”

After this trip, Cutler said he’s inspired to help students in Kenya.

‘‘The Kenya trip was awesome,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to give back over there and help raise money.’’

OneKid OneWorld isn’t trying to attach itself to any and every celebrity, but it welcomes the support of Cavallari and Cutler.

‘‘For us, we do what we do,’’ McCubbin said. ‘‘We will do it whether there are celebrities or not. But they were there, and I will start crying if I start to talk about what kind of impact they can have.”

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