FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — David Nelson needed to do something as soon as he heard Davion Only’s story.
The New York Jets wide receiver was blown away, just as so many others around the world were, 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, Fla., 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 try to help. Nelson, who started the nonprofit organization i’mME with his two brothers to aid orphaned children, got on the phone with his publicist immediately.
“It’s a powerful story,” Nelson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “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 programs, is getting a chance at his dream as he’ll spend the holidays with prospective adoptive parents. But first, he’ll be a guest of Nelson and his organization 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 Christmastime in the city,” Nelson said, smiling.
Only will also meet with Nelson and other players 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’s a subject close to Nelson’s heart, one that drives him each day to try to make a difference.
It’s a journey that began during Memorial Day weekend in 2011, when he traveled 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 realize, ‘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 re-connect with them. So, after returning from the trip, he told his brothers about his experience and asked them if they’d 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 recalled, “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 nonprofit i’mMe on Jan. 5, 2013.
“We just haven’t looked back,” said Nelson, who has traveled 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 fundraising drive to help them get started on building a family village in Haiti. With the Jets out of the playoff picture, Nelson is scheduled to fly to Haiti on Jan. 15 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 aren’t exclusive to Haiti. He and i’mMe are also holding a toy drive through Sunday at The Grasshopper off the Green in Morristown, N.J., to benefit an orphanage in Denville.
“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.”
Nelson is tied for third on the Jets with 27 catches for 324 yards after being signed by New York as a free agent in October. While establishing himself as an important part of the Jets’ offense, he has also found balance between football and his passion off the field.
“This experience has changed perspectives for me,” Nelson said. “I love football and I love what I do, and when I’m here, I’m here. I give it everything I have. But at the same time, football is what I do. It’s not who I am.
“This organization and the kids, helping other people, that’s my life. That’s who I am.”
NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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