David Nelson’s Good Work in Haiti Continues

Posted May 5, 2014

WR’s Newest Plans: ‘Orphan Prevention’ Initiative, Sports Complex

David Nelson is torn.

The earnest young Jets wide receiver knows his headshot is in the lineup of "All Stars of Giving." It's a golf-tournament-style field of athletes, and they're all "vying" to be named the Most Valuable Sports Philanthropist of 2014.

Nelson knows he could put out the word to get fans to click on his photo and lift him into the top 10 (he's 14th this afternoon), where his fledgling charitable organization would be in line to receive a much-needed grant.

And yet...

"I don't want to sit there and say, 'Hey, vote for me,' " he told me recently at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "I don't want people to see my face, my name. It's hard for me to really do that. It's more that I want to show them pictures of the kids we're helping — 'Vote for these kids to give them a voice' instead of saying 'Vote for David Nelson.' "

We can help David with this dilemma. Jets fans, visit the site and vote for David if you're so inclined. I cast a vote for him not because Patriots coach Bill Belichick is tied for 10th but because Nelson is one of the most remarkable stories of athletes helping people that I've encountered in my four decades of covering football and sports.

I asked him about this hokey-sounding yet still important All Stars of Giving concept because we were following up on his and his brothers' outstanding work in Haiti the past two years, which Charlie Frankel first detailed for in early December.

Since the end of our season, for instance, he and his organization ("I'm Me," which translates online to the website bought a house in the middle of Port-au-Prince.

We didn't want to be one of those organizations that just said, 'Hey, we're a non-profit, let's go build something,' " he explained. "We really wanted to attach ourselves to the hearts of the people in Haiti. So we really made a point to engulf ourselves in the culture and get to know the people. Gandhi has a great quote: People won't follow you unless you walk in their shoes and carry the burden they carry."

As we've all heard, many Haitians have heavy burdens. The one that Nelson is attacking is the orphan population. The house in the middle of the capital city was opened and is now staffed with employees to help with that problem.

But Nelson, who said he spent about half of his three months off in Haiti before returning to the team's voluntary offseason program last month, noticed something extraordinary after his house opened its doors.

"Every other day we were getting knocks on our gate, moms and dads who were saying, 'We see you are here to help. We can't afford to take care of our kids,' or 'We don't know how to take care of our kids,' " he said.

"They were offering their kids to us."

Nelson, already in love with the nation and its people, ultimately saw what had to be done. And so his organization has begun an initiative it's calling "orphan prevention." Try imaging what such an initiative might entail: creating artisanal and agricultural jobs for jobless parents, providing their children and other children without parents with food, education and support, helping all to see how to become valuable members of society.

"We're trying to end that cycle — not only end it but reverse it," Nelson said. "We're reinstalling the value of family, so that instead of orphans creating more orphans, it's family creating more family."

Besides the orphanages, schools and jobs the Nelsons are planning, a project of a different kind is on the drawing board.

"We're partnering with another organization to build a $3.1 million sports complex," he said without blinking at the audacity of such a project in such a distressed land. "It's going to be the first and only complex of its kind in Haiti.

"It's a way for these kids to come in that we wouldn't otherwise be able to reach. Sports have so many elements that just provide worth and instill values as far as teamwork, discipline and work ethic. It's a way for us to create an environment of freedom and creativity for these kids."

The complex, which will house a half-dozen soccer fields, a basketball gym, volleyball courts, and a weightroom, is still in the blueprint stage. But that hardly prevented Nelson, since the end of the season, from finding his own Haitian athletic venues to work out on for the past four months while still moving I'm Me's projects along.

"There's a field and a gym there, so I was able to take some of the kids and we'd go play soccer, and that becomes conditioning for me," he said. "I'd go work out and teach the kids kind of how I work out.

"It was really cool to be in that space, to be around people who I love, be able to do something I'm very passionate about, and also continue to stay in shape for my job."

David Nelson's back in New Jersey now, participating in Phase 2 of the Jets' offseason program that began today. He's got equally optimistic views on how the Green & White are shaping up, and we'll bring that part of our interview to you in the coming weeks.

But it's still the offseason, so there will be more Friday evening flights from JFK to PAP (the code letters for Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince) and Sunday evening flights back to JFK for Monday practices.

"I grew up in a church home and always believed in serving others," he said, "but the experience I had in Haiti in 2012 changed my life. When we came back, my brothers and I made it our mission to give those kids and those people a platform to be great."

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