David Nelson needed to do something as soon as he heard Davion Only’s story.
The New York Jets wide receiver was blown away, as were many others around the world, by Only’s emotional adoption plea in October. Only, a 15-year-old boy who was born in prison and raised in foster care, stood up in front of a church congregation in St Petersburg, Florida, and begged for a family to love him.
“I’ll take anyone,” Only said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple, I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”
It was enough to send many to tears, eager to help. Nelson, who started the non-profit organisation i’mME with his two brothers to aid orphaned children, got on the phone with his publicist.
“It’s a powerful story,” Nelson said. “I read it and just felt a calling to reach out to Davion.”
Only, who has since been featured on various television talk shows and news programmes in the US, is getting a chance at his dream, and he will spend the Christmas holidays with prospective adoptive parents.
But first, he will be a guest of Nelson and his organisation in New York this weekend.
Only and a friend will tour Manhattan, including trips to Rockefeller Center, FAO Schwartz and Central Park.
“A crash course in Christmas time in the city,” Nelson said.
Only will meet Nelson and other players on Sunday before the Jets’ game against the Cleveland Browns at MetLife Stadium.
“My reasoning was to get him out here, get him to the football game and get him around the guys, not so he could be blessed by the guys, but so the guys could meet him and kind of be blessed,” Nelson said. “He speaks on behalf of all the orphans across America who are in his shoes, to speak on behalf of the voiceless.”
That is a subject close to Nelson’s heart, one that drives him each day to try to make a difference.
It is a journey that began during May 2011, when he travelled to Haiti with his then-girlfriend and her sister to visit abandoned and orphaned children. Nelson, then playing for the Buffalo Bills, figured it would make for a nice publicity opportunity. Once he got there, everything changed.
“Honestly, I went there for selfish reasons, really,” he said. “To see these kids, who have nothing they can call their own or have anything to hold onto, you get to know them and spend time with them, you realise, ‘Wow, these kids don’t want my money, or the toys or candy that I brought for them. They just want me to hold them, sing them a song or play soccer with them.’
“That touched me on a deep, intimate level. I was wrecked and completely humbled.”
He and his brothers, Patrick and Daniel, had drifted apart over the years, but while in Haiti, he felt an inexplicable urge to reconnect with them. So, after returning from the trip, he told his brothers about his experience and asked them if they would like to join him when he went back to Haiti.
Less than two months later, all three Nelson brothers were in Haiti, reunited and spending time helping abandoned children.
“The whole time we were there,” Nelson said, “we were saying, ‘We were made for this. We were made to help these kids.’”
The brothers decided to make their mission official, establishing the i’mMe charity last January.
“We just haven’t looked back,” said Nelson, who has travelled to Haiti about seven times. “And, it’s been an incredible journey.”
The brothers are currently holding a 35-day campaign called “House The Vision”, a fund-raising drive to help them get started on building a family village in Haiti. With the Jets out of the NFL play-off picture, Nelson is scheduled to fly to Haiti next month and get to work on the planned eight or nine cottages, which will house six or seven kids each.
He keeps in touch with several of the children he has met, using Skype and emails to stay connected. Nelson and his brothers are also in the process of obtaining legal guardianship over 22 kids in Haiti.
“We were leaving one time and a kid walked up to me to give me a hug, and she said something in Creole and I didn’t know what it meant,” Nelson said.
“I asked a translator about five minutes later and he said that she said to me, ‘Please don’t ever forget me.’
“As soon as I heard that, I lost it.”
Nelson’s efforts are not exclusive to Haiti. For example, he and i’mMe are also holding a toy drive this weekend to benefit an orphanage in New Jersey.
“I find inspiration in these kids,” Nelson said. “When you talk to them, you can tell there is still hope and you can see it in their eyes. They know they have a purpose and they just don’t know how to bring it to the surface. There’s greatness inside of them, but it just isn’t being ignited.”