Two years ago, Damon “DJ” Villnave saw a news broadcast that would change his life.
“It was before the holidays [two years ago]. The Rescue Mission had a van going around and they were showing all the homeless people and people out on the streets having frostbite because last winter, unlike this year, it was so cold,” said mom Sara Villnave. “So he was very serious, and he was very upset, and he said, ‘They can’t be cold. I don’t want anyone to be cold.’ Then he decided, ‘Everybody needs a blanket,’ because when he’s cold, he gets a blanket.”
So DJ, a fourth-grader at Karl W. Saile Bear Road Elementary in North Syracuse, decided to organize a blanket drive for the men at the Rescue Mission.
DJ, then 7, went first to his parents, then to his teacher, Jacki Donegan, and the principal at KWS Bear Road Elementary for permission to do the drive. He aimed to collect 40 blankets from the community to donate to the Rescue Mission’s emergency shelter on Gifford Street.
Instead, he collected 281.
“It was cool,” DJ said of the overwhelming response.
Once the blankets were collected, DJ and his family organized them into categories — quilts, fleeces, etc. — loaded them into the family’s two vans and carted them off to the Rescue Mission.
“Once we got there, the people at the Rescue Mission were amazing and they actually were able to give us a tour of the facility, the shelter that the men stay in, the store that families get clothing from,” Sara Villnave said. “DJ was pretty excited to be able to see all of those things, to see that not only were his blankets going to be going to the men in the shelter, but going to families.”
DJ said he was glad to see the reactions of the people who would actually use the blankets he’d collected.
“They’re happy,” he said. “They have a smile on their face. They’re like, ‘Thank you.’ It makes me feel happy that I’m giving people something and that they’re happy that they have a blanket.”
That was what prompted him to do the drive again this year, after collecting 253 last year. He hopes to reach 300 during this year’s drive, which he and his family call DJ’s Gift of Warmth.
“I want to help the community and people that are poor and don’t have much,” DJ said. “Because there are people out there who don’t have as much stuff as we have, so I want to give them the stuff that we have.”
DJ’s parents said their son has always been that kind of kid — caring, sympathetic and always thinking about others.
“He’s very non-egocentric,” father Damon Villnave said. “Every kid, they’re only thinking about themselves, but not him. He really cares about what other people are thinking and how they feel. It’s such a special thing to watch develop.”
“He has always looked beyond himself,” Sara said. “He’s always been a unique person, very sensitive, very willing to give of himself to other people. I think it wasn’t until [two years ago] that he was able to really verbalize it and conjure up an idea that really made an impact on other people.”
It was DJ’s ambition to help those in need that prompted him to hold the drive in January.
“People don’t care about other people after the holiday season,” DJ said. “I wanted to do something so people are still caring about people that are cold and are poor.”
“He wanted to make sure that we do it after the holidays, because lots of people give during the holiday season, so he wanted to make sure that everyone still continued to give,” said Sara Villnave.
Watching their son and the impact he’s having on others makes the Villnaves proud.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Damon said. “I think he’s really stepped up as a young member of the community.”
“I’m so proud of him,” Sara said. ‘When he started this at 7, for him to really think beyond himself is pretty amazing. I’m glad to say he’s mine.”
Drop-off boxes for blankets are located in the main office at KWS Bear Road Elementary, 5590 Bear Road, North Syracuse, and at the district office, 5535 West Taft Road, North Syracuse. Collections will be accepted until Feb. 8.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.