Saint Aaron

Living like a pauper himself, a young man from Broward is trying to save Haiti's children

While Jackson's upbringing was starkly different, both of them share a similar view of their past. Jackson grew up in what he describes as a family of privilege in Destin, Florida, where they lived in a sprawling home on a golf course. His stepfather was a golf pro, and Jackson says his biggest concern as a kid was improving his putting skill. In fact, Jackson became good enough to shoot par, and many who have played with him say he could go pro if he spent time at it. Instead, Jackson says that since leaving Destin, he's left the idea of pro golf behind. "I had no idea of how hard the world was outside Destin," he says. In the same way that Dieubon would look at Haitian street kids and realize his place of privilege, Jackson says he now sees the poor and knows he had it lucky. "He has this calling in his heart to help people," Presti says. "But he has no concern for himself."

During that first meeting with Dieubon, Jackson realized how far his modest salary could go in Haiti. In America, he was just a golf caddy, but here, he could save at least a handful of kids from the streets. They dreamed up plans to open a small orphanage in Port-au-Prince within the next year.

He says he bypassed the typical route of working with one of the foreign aid organizations that work in Haiti, like the Red Cross or Catholic Charities, to avoid the red tape that's usually involved. Besides, he had seen during his first trip there how the owners of orphanages in Port-au-Prince lived well while the children went hungry. So Jackson formed his own charity, named the Chick Grant Foundation, after his late grandfather. And the orphanage bears the name of Coffey's recently deceased mother: the Debra Jo Safe-Haven for the Children of Haiti.

Rico's stomach still shows signs of the worms that nearly killed him.
Eric Alan Barton
Rico's stomach still shows signs of the worms that nearly killed him.
Jackson sits on the mattress he sleeps on at a Hollywood homeless shelter.
Colby Katz
Jackson sits on the mattress he sleeps on at a Hollywood homeless shelter.

Coffey says Jackson's idea for an orphanage moved faster than anybody expected. "Most people are so concerned with logistics and the basics," she says. "Aaron just wants to get something done. He has this ability to make things happen." Still, Coffey and everybody else involved in the idea wondered where the money would come from. Jackson plowed ahead, figuring he'd find the money once he had the orphanage open. "He doesn't think of himself," says Coffey, who's no longer dating Jackson but still travels with him to Haiti every month or so. "He doesn't say, 'What am I going to do once I have this going?'"

Last fall, Dieubon found a home, and Jackson put up the $2,500 for its yearly rent. Jackson and Coffey assembled about $1,000 in supplies and shipped clothes, food, and the bunk beds. Then they hired the orphanage's mom, Clonette Fleurisma, who cooks and cleans; and a yardman, Admeus Decucius, who lives in a shed out back and cares for the property. They both get three meals, a place to sleep, and $100 a month, a princely sum among Haiti's poor.

Soon, the orphanage was costing about $1,100 a month to maintain. It quickly became more than Jackson could afford without cutting back on his own expenses. In November, Jackson gave up his apartment. He moved into the Homeless Voice offices and now sleeps on a comforter he rolls out in the back corner of Cononie's office. He keeps a stack of tattered and stained clothes on a filing cabinet nearby.

Living in a homeless shelter is something Jackson's mom, Wendy Prentice, says isn't that odd for him. Speaking by phone from Jackson's sleepy Florida Panhandle hometown, she says it fits with the way he always was. On a trip to New York City when Jackson was 10, he gave a wad of money, every cent he had brought with him, to a homeless man. "A lot of the things he did when he was younger led to this," she says, admitting that she has mixed feelings about his choice to live in poverty. "He would just give his things away all the time. He'd give his clothes to somebody who wanted them."

His friends, who have come to jokingly nickname him "Jesus," weren't surprised when he gave up his own place. Many of them, like 25-year-old Justin Chrisman, who was Jackson's roommate before Jackson moved into the shelter, have been recruited to serve on an advisory board Jackson set up for his charity. "I really don't know what made him decide to take this route that's so different than everybody else," Chrisman says. "I can't imagine choosing to live in a homeless shelter."

Just what drives him to live in squalor isn't clear. He's often asked if it's rich-kid guilt, some kind of shame over growing up wealthy. "It's not that," he says simply. He explains it in terms using phrases that sound as if they came from posters on the wall of a high school guidance counselor, but he says them with a deep sincerity. "I believe that everyone's mission," he says, "ought to be to make the world a better place."

In April, Jackson lost his job at the country club over a petty disagreement with his boss. It was clear by then, anyway, that he couldn't continue working there. "People would pull up in $100,000 cars," Jackson says, "and I would think, how many kids could they have helped in Haiti instead of buying that car?"

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