The Spark

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David Nelson, Wide Receiver / Pittsburgh Steelers - The Players' Tribune

This little kid was stuck on a piece of rebar. He wasn’t moving. Nobody was helping him. He was laying there motionless in the tangled rubble of some abandoned house. 

I stood by the truck waiting for something to happen. But he was lifeless, like he was just waiting to die. I ran over to him to see what happened. He wasn’t hurt. He was just so weak that he couldn’t get his shirt untangled from the rebar. 

When I finally got him free, he was totally expressionless. He was just looking up at me with these big beaming eyes. I will never forget his eyes. 

I pulled out a Cliff bar. “Hungry?”

No. 

I pulled out a bottle of bubbles. “Want to play?”

No. Totally expressionless. 

I didn’t know much Haitian Creole, but I’d learned to say, “What do you want?”

His response was immediate. He held out his arms. 

“Hold me,” he said.

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I held him in my arms. We didn’t say anything. We just sat there for a few minutes. I wish I could tell you that a little tear went down my cheek. But no, I broke down completely.

I wept. 

I won’t lie to you. When I took this trip to Haiti in 2012, I didn’t expect some kind of life-changing experience. I had just finished my second season with the Buffalo Bills. I was a football player. That was my entire identity. My entire self-worth hinged on how I played in the most recent game. In order to be loved, I thought I had to perform for it. Sure, I went to church and tried to be a stand-up person, but mostly, it was all talk. 

Honestly, I didn’t know much about Haiti. I knew there was a devastating earthquake. I knew it was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But I was pretty naïve. This story started like a lot of stories start: “I was dating a girl at the time … ” 

She thought it would be a good experience for us to go and do some charity work. Her sister had traveled there with an NGO and it had made a profound impact on her. But if I’m being honest, I figured I’d go and hammer some nails, hand out some food, take some photos and feel good about what I’d done.

They have nothing, and yet they have more joy and hope in their pinky finger than I have in my entire body.

And that’s kind of how it went. Well, how it started anyway. 

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved the kids right away. The kids are everywhere — most of them orphans. Literally everywhere. People are so poor that they leave children on the doorsteps of orphanages. There’s no TV. No internet. No hot showers. There’s only power for half the day, if it comes on at all. Despite it all, if you toss a soccer ball into the middle of 40 kids, they will play 20 vs. 20 and be the happiest kids in the entire world. 

They have nothing, and yet they have more joy and hope in their pinky finger than I have in my entire body. It’s one thing to read this and another to experience the warmth. I’m sure you have read this a hundred times before. I didn’t get it either. In fact, when the time came to head home, I was ready to go. By the end of the trip, I was heartbroken. I was thinking, Look at all this devastation, years after the earthquake. There’s no infrastructure. No local economy. There’s no hope here. How can I possibly help? 

On our way to the airport, we stopped at a gas station to fill up our truck. In Haiti, this takes 45 minutes. I was standing by the truck when I looked across the road and saw the little kid laying motionless on the rebar. 

“Hold me.”

When I held him in my arms, it was like a paradigm shifted. It was the realest, rawest moment I’ve ever experienced. 

From the moment the plane’s engines started to rumble, there was no more hopelessness or despair. I didn’t think about the infrastructure or the corruption. All I could think was: I have to go back. I have to go back. 

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There are a lot of depressing numbers I could throw at you. Did you know that there are more than 63 million orphans in the world? Did you know that the numbers are actually going up, not down? You can Google more. But it’s easy to tune it out.

Here’s the only one that mattered to me: Of the 600,000 Haitian orphans, 80 percent have at least one parent who is alive somewhere. There are currently 15,000 NGOs and more than 750 orphanages in Haiti. The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of aid or compassion. The root issue, as I’ve learned, is poverty and education.

Most of these children are not merely abandoned. They’re given up because their parents were abandoned as well. It’s what we call the orphan cycle, and you see it all around the world, not just in Haiti. 

When I got back to the States, I started researching and traveling and reaching out to people much smarter about these issues than me. I kept hearing some variation of the same thing: “The mistake most people make is they try to impose their American perspective and values on Haiti. They think throwing money at the problem will fix everything.” 

So I enlisted my two brothers in the cause (I have seven siblings, so I had a few to spare), and we traveled back to Haiti to get our hands dirty. We bought a house to set up a base camp, and I got my first Naïve American 101 lesson. Why aren’t there more business here? Why can’t there be tech startups like in Asia? Then I got my first WiFi bill, and I got my answer. It was 400 dollars a month. 

The infrastructure is non-existent. The power grid “boots up” at 8 p.m. every night. Only sometimes it doesn’t. You never know. 

One of the first things you notice about Haiti as soon as you land is that there are kids running around everywhere. It’s like a giant birthday party that never ends. After a while, it dawned on me: Hey, wait, why aren’t these kids in school?

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Naïve American Lesson No. 2: It turns out that Haitian education is barebones. There’s no music. No art. No sports. No theater. The kids get out of school at 11:30 a.m. every day. My mind flashed to my own youth, and I thought, Okay that’s way, way too much free time — and all that free time gives room for trouble and bad decisions. At that moment, I had my first realization. We didn’t need to build more orphanages. We needed to build more effective schools. We had to harness the amazing energy and passion of these kids into something great. 

So we created an after-school program. But not the one you are picturing in your head — not the fancy American one with the iPads and the whiteboards and the computer programming classes. I know you want the Hollywood version. Look, I want it too. It looks great on a website or in an Instagram photo. But the reality is that the infrastructure cannot support that style of education right now.

Our kids have to make do with a very old-school education. It’s all chalk and pencils. There are no printers in Haiti, so the children do their assignments in workbooks. Remember those? The workbooks have usually been passed down for years, so the answers have usually been filled in four or five times. We tell the kids to scratch out the previous answers or cover them up with their hand. 

You know what the amazing thing is? The kids listen. They’re so hungry to learn that they usually don’t cheat. And they’re actually excited about it. There’s a warmth and an energy to the orphans of Haiti that is indescribable. You have to — literally — feel it. There’s a reason why so many superheroes are orphans.

Superman. Batman. Spiderman. Even Cinderella. 

The little kid that was stuck on that rebar changed my life. He didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. But he didn’t want money. He didn’t even want food. He just wanted to be loved. That’s not someone to pity. That’s a real-life superhero. 

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For the last few years, we have been chopping away, building up our community and partnering with university researchers to monitor how our after-school programs are impacting the kids, and figuring out how we can do better. I have two full-time jobs. One as an NFL player, and one as the head of our organization, i’mMe. 

This has been … interesting, to say the least. There are still people in football who believe we’re robots. When I became a free agent this winter, there were a few teams who saw my charity work as a red flag. The dreaded D word came up. “Distractions.” A few teams asked if I would be willing to give up all work with the charity during the season. 

I told them the truth. I told them no. I told them that I think my work actually helps me escape the burnout that’s so common in the NFL. I told them I think I can be a positive effect on the locker room culture. 

Some teams didn’t agree. And I get why. But the Pittsburgh Steelers believed in me. And that’s all that really matters, so my full-time jobs continue to this day. 

There’s a warmth and an energy to the orphans of Haiti that is indescribable. You have to — literally — feel it.

Is it all a big happy ending? Of course not. There are daily frustrations. Corruption is the norm. Progress is slow. When your country has been destroyed time and time again by natural disasters, it’s only natural that the older generations have a fatalistic mentality. 

But you can see the spark in the younger generation. They’re tired of running to the Americans for help. They want a hand up, not a hand out. Don’t believe me? Listen to this: 

A few months ago, we landed in Haiti and our driver, Fred, picked us up. He’s been our driver almost since the beginning, and we’re a team. He’s my sounding board for Naïve American ideas, and I’m his sounding board for business ideas. We learn from each other. 

“I want to show you something,” he said. “Can we drive to my house first?” 

Sure … ? 

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We drive around back and I see this enormous water tank that had been dug almost 500 feet deep. It was an elaborate setup. Tubes going everywhere. Concrete slabs all over the place.

I looked at him in disbelief. 

“What is this?” I said. 

“Aquaponics. Fish farm.” 

“How … how did you do this?” 

“Sold my car and used my savings.” 

“No, I mean how did you learn to do build all this?”

“I YouTubed it at your house.” 

I just started laughing. It was incredible. Fred was tired of waiting around for handouts. He was tired of eating rice and beans. His dream to start a sustainable business is now a reality. Not just to feed people much-needed protein, but to employ a few people in the community on a modest $2-a-day salary. Everything Haiti needs is in Haiti, and my man Fred is a glowing example of that.

This is just one step in breaking the orphan cycle. It’s a process, but we will get there. If you want to help, I don’t want you to just cut a check. I don’t want you to just send money or retweet. I want what that little boy wanted who changed my life. I just want your heart. 

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i’mME is a non profit organization who exists to End the Orphan Cycle through care, prevention, and partnerships. Since beginning its efforts in Haiti during the summer of 2014, i’mME has provided over 22,000 meals, educated 250 children, rescued 11 orphans, created 37 jobs, and prevented close to 200 children from being abandoned. They are currently in the beginning phases of expanding their efforts to a couple of new countries.

To learn more, visit imME.org. Right now, i’mME is in the middle of their “Raise Your Voice” November campaign for Orphan Awareness Month. You can use your voice to save the lives of Orphans in Haiti by visiting imME.org/November.

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