Earlier this month, David Nelson traveled to Haiti and met a boy the locals call Mackey.
Mackey was born shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, including his father. Mackey tested positive for HIV at birth. Unlike most babies, he never went home from the hospital with his mother. She left him in a dumpster, convinced his life expectancy would be the same in Haiti's trash system as it would be with her.
He was found and brought to an orphanage, only for his mother to return and take him away. Two months later, she abandoned Mackey again, this time on hospital steps alongside a note. Doctors said he hadn't eaten in weeks and was on the verge of death. They took him in, nursed him back to health and discovered a miracle.
When Mackey was previously tested for HIV, part of his mother's umbilical cord was connected to him. Now that it had fallen off, doctors retested him for the virus and found nothing. Mackey was no longer plagued with a fatal disease. He was offered back to his mother - who spurned him one last time - before returning to the orphanage.
"Every time you take a mission trip, there's always one kid that grabs your heart and you never forget. I picture that kid every single day in my mind," Nelson said. "He's one of the most beautiful kids you've ever met. It's an incredible story."
Nelson, a former Florida wide receiver who currently plays for the Cleveland Browns, had never been to Haiti before a trip to Coreluv International's Gonaives Orphanage last Memorial Day weekend. He has returned three times since. Struck by the poverty and more than 300,000 homeless children, Nelson felt a need to reach out. Along with his brothers, Daniel and Patrick, he began to sketch out the idea behind i'mME, an organization that aims to help kids in Haiti and change the way people look at orphanages in impoverished countries.
"I started to realize this is what I'm here for. This is my purpose," Patrick said, "to give a voice to the voiceless. To give love to the kids who don't see love every day of their lives."
David turned down a couple of opportunities to travel to Haiti before agreeing to go last May. He admittedly says the reasons why he decided to make the first trip were rooted in selfishness and a misunderstanding of the country. He thought the kids would be excited to meet a professional athlete, something they had probably never experienced before. David thought his presence alone would be a "treat" for underprivileged children.
"Boy, was I wrong," he said. "When you go to meet these kids, they don't know who you are. They don't know who anybody is. ... They don't care what you do. They just want to be loved. These kids are running up to you with their arms open wide and smiles on their faces just because you're there to spend time with them. Not because of who you are or what you do."
The common phrase heard from outsiders visiting Haiti is, "people back home won't believe this." Women holding babies beg for money and try to sell anything they can find for a nickel. Garbage lines the streets. Tent cities that were set up in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake still house thousands of people who have never found a way to recover.
All of this is set to the backdrop of green mountains and pristine water. Anywhere else in the Caribbean, this would make for a tourist destination where American dollars flood the local economy. But past governments and natural disasters have turned Haiti into a place foreigners only visit to report on poor conditions or find a way to help.
"(David's) vision is long-term. It's to help teach these kids that God loves them but that there's a purpose for why they're here on this earth and they need to find out what that is. What's their gift? What do they love to do? Help foster that."
David and his brothers are hooked on the latter. In addition to four Haiti trips, they have traveled to Ghana and India to study what it will take to build an orphanage.
The first thing they want you to know is they don't intend to build orphanages - not in the traditional sense, at least. The goal is to build "family villages," communities of smaller houses in which four to six orphans will be chaperoned at all times by an assigned caretaker and lead as close to a normal family life as possible given the situation.
It's a concept familiar to Juliana Terry, an i'mME supporter who met David while guiding his college teammate Tim Tebow around the GameChangers Coaches Leadership Summit in Dallas this past February. Terry went on a previous mission trip to Bulembu, Swaziland, a small village in southeast Africa built with the goal of changing life for 2,000 orphans who are being moved into six-person homes by 2020. They receive medical attention, an education and the closest thing Bulembu Ministries Swaziland can provide to a regular childhood.
"(David's) vision is long-term," Terry said. "It's to help teach these kids that God loves them but that there's a purpose for why they're here on this earth and they need to find out what that is. What's their gift? What do they love to do? Help foster that."
"We want to teach them that they have a purpose, a meaning in life," David said. "They're changing that culture that's so prevalent in Haiti and third-world countries that's just looking for a handout. They're not self-sustainable. They're just looking for something. They see an American and they automatically assume they're there to give them help. We want to teach these kids life skills, self-sustainable business. When they turn 18 years old, we want them to be a difference-maker in that culture. So orphans aren't creating more orphans."
The message of i'mME is heavily based in faith. The name itself stems from the idea that orphans can find hope in their lives through the belief that God loves them unconditionally. There is a strong Evangelical side that comes in addition to education and child development. As Patrick writes on the organization's website: "Simply put, each child can say, 'I'm Me,' and be proud to be a child of God."
Its mission isn't limited to Haiti. i'mME is also currently taking donations for victims of the recent Oklahoma tornado tragedy. David and Patrick are traveling to the damaged areas Wednesday to provide assistance to victims.
i'mME is currently in search of money and manpower to carry out its mission. The first goal is to raise $8,000, enough to purchase the property in Haiti on which the group plans to build its first community. They offer "IDENTITY FOUND in Christ!" T-shirts and "i'mME" bracelets in exchange for donations. But they also need willing bodies to travel and aid the ultimate mission of building a foundation children can trust.
Finding willing people is the smaller roadblock, the bigger coming in the form of Haiti itself. Because of rapidly expanding orphanages since the earthquake, the Haitian government stepped in toward the end of 2012 to cut down on families leaving children at orphanages because they cannot afford to care for them. Paperwork is required for every child taken in, despite the fact kids are often taken off the streets while trying to survive unlivable conditions.
Businesses in Haiti have a history of corruption, and Patrick said i'mME intends to have someone from the organization on hand throughout the development of the community it aspires to build. Otherwise, it is a well-known risk to trust local contractors with funds from people abroad who want to make sure their money is going entirely toward the cause at hand. Without supervision, money can be pocketed and go to waste.
"All these things have to be written down and given to the government for them to understand what we're doing and why we're here," Patrick said. "It's incredibly difficult, but at the same time, it's totally worth it because every one kid we get into our home, that's a life that's going to be changed."
That dream of change currently sits on an undeveloped piece of land that has yet to be purchased in one of the poorest countries in the world. But it stems from the hearts and minds of three brothers whom decided they hadn't done enough.
Please visit i'mME to learn more about the organization and what you can do to help.