Like many NFL players, David Nelson has plenty to be thankful for today. He’s happy, healthy, and living the dream making good money while playing a game that he loves for a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot.
Sure, those things are great and all, but for David, the meaning of Thanksgiving changed just a few years ago, and it started with a last-minute mission to Haiti.
“At first I was just struck by the beauty of the landscape,” he said of his 2011 Memorial Day weekend voyage with the charity Coreluv, “but then we drove through the beach and mountains into the orphanage and I felt an immediate connection around those kids.”
A connection so deep, in fact, that David returned to Haiti just two weeks later, this time with his two brothers.
“These are kids whose mothers and fathers have both passed away, or with parents who just gave them away, left them on the street completely abandoned," David said. "They didn’t want me to come and give them toys; they didn’t want me to bring them food. They just wanted me to come there and love them and give them attention and tell them they were special. There was something very powerful about that.”
David and his brothers returned to the U.S., but their work was just getting started. They had seen the overwhelming need for help and felt compelled to do something about it. Thus began the founding of their charity, I’mME.
Since January, the Nelsons have been raising money to get the non-profit up and running, and on Nov. 19 they launched their first campaign. It’s called “House the Vision,” and the goal is to raise $55,000 to create a village for several dozen Haitian orphans.
An institution-style housing with a boys' wing on one end, a girls’ wing on the other end, and common areas in between would be the most cost-effective, but that’s a structure that David believes is outdated and impersonal, as evidenced by a conversation he had with a 35-year-old Kenyan man who grew up in such an orphanage.
“I asked him why he didn’t have any kids, and he said, ‘David, how can I give something that I’ve never had? How can I love somebody when I myself have never been loved? How can I start a family when I’ve never been a part of a family? I don’t know what it’s like.’
"We’re giving these kids food, we’re giving them shelter, we’re giving them water, we’re giving them an education, but at the same time we’re not giving them what I think is the most valuable thing of all – love, attention and care.”
So instead of an environment in which the kids grow up “stacked on top of each other, fending for themselves,” the Nelsons are aiming to buy 15 acres of land on which they can build eight or nine houses. Each home will have its own “mom” for six to eight kids.
“We want these kids to know that they are individually and specifically loved,” David Nelson explained of their go-deep-not-wide approach.
As if that’s not already personal and intimate enough, however, David’s brother Patrick is planning on moving to Haiti permanently to supervise the village on a day-to-day basis.
“These are going to be our kids,” said David, who has no wife or biological kids of his own. “This isn’t going to be something that I’m just going to build and then give it away. I’ll fly back and forth, and those kids will know that we’re there to love them. We’re going to be there to see them through it all for 18 years, however long they’re there. That’ll be our village.”
Forget the fact that playing in the NFL is a full-time job with games on Sundays, four practices every week, countless film study and weightlifting sessions, and everything else that comes with being a professional football player. There are no excuses for him when it comes to doing the right thing. Football’s not the end-all-be-all for him, it’s simply the means to a very respectable end.
“The best part about what I do is the platform it gives me to give a voice to the voiceless,” he said.
Three or four years ago, David Nelson would have been thankful for the things he had compared to others who were less fortunate. But that “self-righteous” mentality is long gone.
“I’m thankful for the humbleness that those kids in Haiti have given me and for the new perspective that they’ve given me,” he said. “I’m thankful for life, I’m thankful for the people I interact with, I’m thankful for the beauty of conversation, of interaction, and of love.”
Click here to read more about the Nelsons' campaign and to find out how you can contribute to the cause.