For NFL wide receivers, success begins and ends with their arms. Rushing down the football field with lightning speed, wide receivers stretch out their arms to make miraculous catches. Reaching out just far enough to pull the leather football into their side, they jaunt into the end zone. Once there, the referee holds up his arms in a goal post formation. Touchdown. On a Sunday afternoon in the fall, an NFL wide receiver's arms can make him a hero amongst men.
Rebar. Perhaps it's telling that four years after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti that something meant to serve as a reinforcement is scattered across the Caribbean island. When the earthquake shook the ground seven minutes ahead of 5 p.m. on that January day in 2010, what Haiti was missing was reinforcements. Its economy was weak. Its infrastructure was lacking. Its people were in need. And with the strong movements of the earth below, what little that existed of Haiti's core was ripped from underneath it.
Rebar isn't the only thing scattered across Haiti's streets. More prevalent than the rebar on the streets of Haiti are the country's children. Throughout Haiti's 10,714 square miles are scattered children whose parents were lost to the earthquake, disease or an economy that does not allow them to adequately care for their babies. A 2012 UNICEF report found that 4.2-percent of Haiti's 10.17 million population is orphaned.
New York Jets wide receiver, David Nelson, was at a gas station in Haiti. It was not only his first trip to Haiti, but his first trip outside of the United States. He was in Haiti "just to help people," after a friend who visited several times told him he had to experience the energy of the country and its people. At the gas station, Nelson looked across the street and saw one of Haiti's children stuck on a piece of rebar. Seeing the child in need, Nelson ran across the street and with his strong arms, helped the lethargic young boy get freed from the rebar. Pulling the young boy away from the rebar, Nelson realized that he hadn't eaten in days and was dehydrated. Recognizing this, Nelson offered him food. The boy declined. Not sure what else he could do for the boy, Nelson remembered that had bubbles with him from spending time with other orphans in the country. He pulled them out, blew some and asked if the boy wanted to play. Once again, the boy shook his head, "no."
Confused about what else he could do to help the boy, Nelson had his interpreter ask the young boy what Nelson could do for him. Immediately, the young boy lifted his arms up towards the NFL wide receiver and in Creole said, "Hold me." With strong arms typically used to score touchdowns, Nelson picked up the young boy and just held him. "It changed my perspective. Here was this kid who didn't know if he was going to eat or have time to play, who didn't know if anyone cared for him. In that time, though, all that mattered to him was that someone would hold and cherish him," Nelson reflected.
With the young boy in his arms, a fire began burning in Nelson's heart that sparked an idea in his mind. "It got me thinking that helping these children is so much deeper than just going to Haiti and building structures and orphanages. The number one thing these kids need in their life is to be loved," Nelson said.
And so, the man who earns his income in a profession known for toughness set out to give love to the children of Haiti. In the months that followed, Nelson and two of his brothers launched I'm Me, a foundation aimed at building an infrastructure and creating resources for Haiti's orphans.
I didn't expect to go to Haiti and fall in love with orphans. I didn't go there to start a nonprofit organization. I didn't have any expectations. I just went there to help people. I had never been out of the country, but in the midst of poverty and destruction, I felt so much peace. I felt so much purpose there. When I was around kids without a mom and dad who were living in orphanages, I was captivated by their experiences in life. Hearing story after story shifted pieces of my heart. After all of that, I still saw that they had joy and hope for life. And here I was, an NFL player, complaining about small things. I felt so much purpose and saw a future inside of these kids, that it broke my heart knowing that their purpose wasn't going to be manifested, because they didn't have anyone to tell them they're worth it and encourage them. I decided it was time to stop sitting on the sidelines.
Since then, Nelson and his brothers have come off of the sidelines in big fashion through I'm Me. Nelson explains the foundation as having three pillars: Orphan care, orphan prevention and stewardship. Nelson and his brothers purchased a home in Haiti, where his brother lives, and Nelson visits monthly. Nelson believes having a permanent presence on the ground in Haiti is critical to the foundation's success, as the foundation can more easily communicate its mission to Haiti's communities and become more quickly aware of issues facing the orphan population.
Being on the ground in Haiti recently allowed I'm Me to more quickly fulfill one of its missions than expected. While the organization planned on caring for orphans within its own facility, Nelson and his brothers wanted to build up the foundation a bit more before they took in orphans. However, the brothers' plans quickly changed last month during a visit to an orphanage. There, the brothers were met with nine children who hadn't eaten or showered for some time. Nelson says the children reeked of urine and their bodies were merely skin and bone. It became clear to the brothers that the children had been abandoned and that the time had come for I'm Me to begin orphan care.
In the days that followed, I'm Me and the Nelsons moved the nine children, the youngest five months old and the oldest eight years old, into their home. They bathed them. They fed them. And they loved them. In doing so, Nelson and I'm Me began learning the little ones' stories.
There's Taina, whose parents dropped her off at an orphanage at the tender age of four days old and are believed now to be deceased.
There's Gamima whose unemployed father left her at the orphanage and never came back for her.
There's Robensley, the four-year-old with a mischievous smile whose mother used to visit him at the orphanage, then stopped.
And then there's Wilson, whose parents' mental illnesses prevented them from taking care of him, but whose fast feet will someday allow him to be a successful athlete, like the one who took him in and gave him a home.
"It was crazy how much they grew when we gave them food, encouragement and love. When they came here, you couldn't see past their eyes. Now, these kids have so much life. They are running around enjoying life. That's what happened here in three short weeks," Nelson said.
This week, Nelson will officially launch I'm Me at an event in New York, where he'll be surrounded by family, friends and teammates including Geno Smith and Eric Decker. There, he'll tell attendees of the great work that he's doing with his arms -- and heart -- off of the field. And if they lend him an ear, he'll tell them why he's doing it.
When I tell people I'm involved with orphans, they always ask, 'why?' They ask if I was an orphan. I'm passionate about orphans, because I had a great, loving family growing up and know what it's like growing up in that environment. I am who I am because of my mom and dad. My mom worked as hard as she could to take care of us and went back to school when we were in elementary school. My dad was at every one of my sporting events. My parents told us we could achieve anything we wanted to, as long as we put the work in. I am who I am because they continued to fight for me. They did everything they could within their control to give me a great life. That's why my brothers and I are so passionate about orphans.