By Van Adams, Player Engagement Insider
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald gained renewed perspective on how kindness and generosity can go along way in helping others. Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, McDonald has always shown a strong commitment to giving back. Traveling abroad on mission trips recently left an indelible mark on him, motivating him to want to do more.
McDonald partnered with Convoy of Hope, a faith-based, nonprofit organization that helps people domestically and abroad by sharing food, water, emergency supplies, agricultural know-how, and provides opportunities that empower people to live independent lives, free from poverty, disease and hunger.
McDonald, a two-time 49ers Community Service Family Award recipient (2015, 2016), had the opportunity to visit Haiti after the 2014 NFL season in conjunction with a Convoy of Hope mission trip. During the visit, he and a few of his fellow 49er teammates helped to teach healthy eating habits and sustainable agriculture techniques to local families.
“We went to communities and schools in Haiti, handing out plates of food. For many of the kids it was the only meal they had all day. For some, it was the only food they would have all week,” said McDonald, a Rice University alumnus. “I used to wake up and choose between three or four things to eat for breakfast before I went to school. That (hunger) shouldn't exist in this world.”
While visiting an orphanage in Haiti, McDonald noticed how one woman had the responsibility to care for 73 kids.
“We brought a bag of Dum-Dums lollipops; children were jumping over each other just to get a sucker,” McDonald said. “Once they see you pick up one kid, they fight over the attention, we were picking up and holding kids all day.”
“When you see a kid light up when you hand them a plate of food, knowing that might be the only food they’ve had all day, something we don't have to think twice about in the United States, it changes your life,” McDonald said.
“Life is simple there, yet they are so full of joy and are so appreciative of what they have. We lose sight of that here in the United States because we have the luxury and privilege of finding things to fill our time. There they walk six miles a day to gather water, eight miles a day to buy a goat. Things that are a part of their normal routine that we don’t have to worry about.”
A few weeks after the Haiti mission trip, in partnership with his local church in San Jose, McDonald and his wife, Kendi, traveled to Nicaragua to help build a church and develop a trade school for young men to learn different skills such as carpentry and welding. Kendi participated in mission trips to Ecuador as a student at Oklahoma State and had some idea of what to expect. However, the experience was eye-opening for McDonald and offered him a first-hand glimpse of what poverty and lack look like outside of the United States.
“I was so naïve. I was very fortunate to be raised by two hardworking teachers and considered myself to be enlightened about the world,” said McDonald who was 24 years old when he traveled to Haiti. “But now, after traveling to other countries, I’m never going to forget that experience. It’s something I look forward to sharing with my kids at an early age and let them see first-hand how the opportunities we have here in America are not everywhere.
“When we went to Nicaragua. I remember thinking about how and when we’d introduce our kids to an international community and show them circumstances outside of their own. If you can have that kind of experience at a young age, it shapes, I think, your perspective on life and giving back.”
The simplicity of just being kind to people and the concept of starting where you are and doing what you can with the resources you have is not lost on McDonald.
“A lot of times we get stuck on ‘I can’t do enough, so I’m not going to do anything at all.’ We lose site of the little things like holding the door open for someone, being polite, saying thank you. You never know how that will shape a someone’s day.”
For the past two years, the McDonalds have sponsored a child in Nicaragua.
“He (Kevin) was four when we met him. He was so shy and wouldn’t open up,” McDonald recalled. “We brought him and his family a bunch of gifts. One of them was a baseball tee set. As I set it up for him, he took the ball off the tee, soft tossed it to himself and whacked it on top of the roof of the neighbor’s place. So he lost the first ball. My jaw dropped, I was like, ‘How did you know how to do that’ (laughing) he was four years old at the time.”
When Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, McDonald, a southeast Texas native, set up a fund with Convoy of Hope to send two truckloads of supplies to his hometown of Winnie to specifically help the town get the basic necessities they desperately needed.
“It was pretty amazing to see the response. In a lot of cases, small towns like mine, with about 3,500 people don’t have a lot of spotlight,” McDonald said. “A lot of people lost everything. Take my aunt and uncle for example, they still haven’t moved back in. They had water up over their roof. A lot of people in Winnie still haven’t moved back in; they’ve lost things that will never be replaced.”
The hurricane hit at the same time McDonald was traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was able to monitor the devastation in his hometown with the help of his father, who sent him live video and photos of the disaster.
“Houses had been gutted, there were piles of garbage on the streets,” said McDonald, who personally donated a little more than $20K to Winnie specifically for hurricane relief. “People sent videos crying, thankful they had a pillow to sleep on. You don't think about simple things like that until it happens. The little things are taken for granted.”
The McDonalds have plans to travel to Africa next but with their young son, Coman, born in July of 2106 and a daughter on the way this spring. International mission trips will be placed on hold this NFL off-season.
In the meantime, plans to establish a foundation to assist children living in less fortunate circumstances, raise awareness of poverty abroad, and educate the community on how they can help make a difference are underway. McDonald hopes to bring a “convoy of giving” to Pittsburgh to rally his new hometown around these causes.
“In the short time we’ve been in Pittsburgh my wife has volunteered with fundraisers and toy drives alongside of the Steelers’ wives’ organization,” said McDonald who has been with the Steelers since the start of the 2017 season. “We love the platform the NFL gives and are looking forward to building relationships in the off season and doing what we can to keep giving back.”
Van Adams is an award-winning entrepreneur and small business owner with expertise in sports business and business development. Over the last decade, she has represented a number of iconic sports celebrities and executed marketing campaigns for their personal celebrity and/or business ventures. An advocate for women in business, Van is the creator and producer of Gathering on the Greens, a women’s golf initiative, and serves as President of the Board of Directors for the NYC Metro Chapter of Women in Sports and Events where she oversees programming and strategy. Van is an adjunct professor and often conducts workshops for the small business & sports business communities. She spends her spare time in a test kitchen baking or on a golf course working on her short game.