Damon “DJ” Villnave is more concerned about the cold than your typical 10-year-old.
DJ isn’t worried about himself, but the many men and women on the streets of Syracuse without a roof over their heads, stuck in the elements.
That’s why he started his annual blanket drive, DJ’s Gift of Warmth, in 2010. The effort has collected more than 750 blankets for the Rescue Mission since its inception. This year’s drive kicked off Jan. 6 and continues until Jan. 31.
DJ first undertook the drive four years ago when he saw a news story on television about the Rescue Mission’s work with the homeless and the concerns about frostbite among the men living on the street.
“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 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.”
Thus the blanket drive was born. DJ, then 7, went first to his parents, then to his teacher, Jacki Donegan, and 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.
Now a fifth-grader at Gillette Road Middle School, DJ hopes to collect 300 blankets this year. He also hopes to continue to raise awareness about both the work done by the Rescue Mission and the drive itself.
So far, his efforts to get notices have been successful. This year, DJ received several accolades for his work, including the Youth Impact Award, for which he was nominated by the Rescue Mission and given a plaque and a medal by Biz Events. He also received a Youth Service Agency (YSA) grant for $1,000, which he donated to the Rescue Mission.
“The YSA grant was something that was applied for through Good Morning America,” said DJ’s father, Damon Villnave. “It was a segment that we saw during the summer that wanted to help young people out with their community service projects that the children were working on. The award is given to youths who have made a significant impact on their local community.”
The family filled out the application and learned a few weeks later that DJ had been awarded $1,000, which he wanted to donate directly to the Rescue Mission. On Dec. 15, during NewsChannel 9’s “Movie With a Mission” segment, the family was featured presenting the check to the Mission.
DJ’s efforts also netted him a $50 gift card from the Cicero WalMart, which he used to purchase 22 blankets for this year’s drive. He’s also been featured on NewsChannel 9, Bridge Street and in other local news media.
DJ and his family believe all of the publicity will help shed light on the problem of homelessness in the Central New York community.
“He feels the publicity he has received will help his blanket drive grow and that he will be able to help more people in the community,” Damon Villnave said. “He is glad for the awareness it has created for the homeless, more than just for his blanket drive. He wants people to understand that homelessness is a 365 day a year problem, not just during the holidays. DJ’s very proud of his project and would like to see it get bigger and bigger every year.”
In addition to helping the homeless, the project has also helped DJ grow as a person.
“We feel that this drive has really bolstered his confidence about speaking in front of people, continue to develop an understanding of people in need and how one person can truly make a difference in the lives of others,” Damon Villnave said. “As parents we are very proud of DJ for wanting to continue on with this project. It just shows his compassion to the people of his community. He is also continuing to be a role model for his sisters. This project has really brought the community together to help drive awareness of homeless and what the Rescue Mission really does for this entire community.”
DJ himself said he was grateful to the community for their support.
“Even though I’m getting all of this recognition, it is the community who deserves it because those people are the ones donating blankets,” he said.
Blankets can be dropped off at Gillette Road Middle School, Karl W. Saile Bear Road Elementary School or Drivers Village in front of the Cicero Falcons gymnasium by the clock. In addition, the family has set up a Facebook page, Facebook.com/ DJsGiftofWarmth; you can schedule a time with them to pick up blankets or find more information there.
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.