When he was young, Cliff Avril would visit Haiti to see his grandmother every summer. But after his grandmother died from complications of diabetes, and with life getting in the way—college, his NFL career, children, etc.—the Seahawks defensive end hadn't been back to his parents' home country in more than a decade.
On Wednesday, however, Avril, Marshawn Lynch and other NFL players flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti where they will help rebuild an elementary school, host a mobile medical clinic and also a football camp in a trip coordinated through Free the Children.
Part of the reason Avril decided to head back to Haiti this offseason is that his father, Jean Samuel, passed away last spring.
"He wanted me to go back and do some things to help," Avril said of his father, who emigrated from Haiti in 1982, four years before Avril was born.
But more than anything, Avril just decided the time was right to give back to a country in need that holds a special place in his heart. Avril grew up seeing his parents work long hours and multiple jobs to provide for him opportunities they didn't have in Haiti. That instilled in him a work ethic that helped him become a starter on one of the NFL's best defenses, a job that allows him to provide for his family in ways his parents could not, but Avril also wants his two sons to know their heritage while also understanding the importance of giving back.
"I felt like I wasn't there mentally to go back in the past, but now I feel like I'm prepared to go back and I want to give back," Avril said. "I just think it's the right timing for me and my family and my kids. I want to them to understand and appreciate the things we have here, but also to learn to give back, and also understand where their grandparents and great grandparents came from.
"To see my mom, she worked two, three jobs my whole life, it's one of those things where you see them working so hard and it's like, you definitely don't want to work as hard as she had to for that long, but at the same time, they instilled in me to have that kind of work ethic at whatever you do."
Much of the work Avril and company will be doing in Haiti aligns with what his Cliff Avril Family Foundation does in Seattle, Charlotte and Jacksonville, aiming to increase the awareness of Type 2 diabetes in youth and encourage healthy living through nutrition and exercise.
"We're going to build an elementary school," Avril said from Miami before leaving for Haiti. "The reason for an elementary school—my foundation is geared towards juvenile diabetes, and I feel like education is a big part of understanding how to beat it or how to cope. Just knowing what to eat and what not to eat. Everybody in my family (in Haiti) pretty much had diabetes, and it was all due to the diet they had there. That's one of the main reasons we're doing the school. We'll do a garden at the school to teach healthy eating and healthy living, and also we're doing a health clinic as well. We'll partner up with some doctors out there to do a health clinic. Then we'll finish off with a football camp on Saturday. In Haiti, they don't really gravitate towards American football, they mostly play soccer. So just give local kids a look at what some Haitian guys are doing in America."
Avril is part of a large contingent of NFL players of Haitian decent, a group that includes Seahawks linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, and while he's proud of his ancestry, he's also eager to help improve a country that is struggling.
"Haiti is so close to the U.S," he said. "There's Haitians up and down the East Coast, and it's unfortunate that country doesn't get the recognition and the help that it needs. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For an island to have so many resources—it's on the same island as the Dominican Republic, and people go there in a heartbeat—but right across the border, nobody wants to go there. It's unfortunate it has a bad rep, but it's an awesome country."
In addition to Avril and Lynch, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch and Buccaneers tackle Gosder Cherilus also made the trip this week.
"It's awesome to have their support, it's awesome to be in a situation where guys are willing to take that step with you," Avril said. "Marshawn wants to help actually build the school out there. There's a lot of good guys in the NFL… It's cool to have these guys' support."