By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
Somewhere down a maze of rutted dirt roads in a rundown Port-au-Prince neighborhood, past the red gate that keeps out the armed thugs, and through a courtyard of packed gravel, a 23-year-old guy from Broward County steps through the doorway of the sanctuary he created.
Aaron Jackson looks out of place at first. A white kid with a black ski cap, baggy jeans, and oversized white undershirt, he seems a better fit for the Aventura Mall than this concrete home in Haiti. But then he's overtaken by a swarm of kids. As they tug on his hands, crawl onto his back, and jump into his arms, it suddenly seems as if there's no place he belongs more.
"They love to be picked up," says Jackson, his eyes as blue as Easter eggs and his brown hair a messy mop that matches an untrimmed beard. "They love any attention you can give them." He sits down in a folding chair, taking two, then three of the kids onto his lap. They steal his hat, and the boys wrestle for it, the oldest, 7-year-old Ritchy, soon wearing it proudly. The kids pat his hair like they're petting a dog.
"It's soft," 5-year-old Rico whispers in Creole.
Jackson flips him over to tickle his stomach, and as Rico screams with laughter, Jackson points out the boy's belly, which looks as bloated as an overfilled balloon.
"See?" Jackson says, touching Rico's belly button, which sticks out like a hitch-hiker's thumb. "He's still got this big tummy. The worms do it. Even though they're gone, it takes months for his stomach to go down."
Eventually, the worms might have killed Rico. Back in January, Rico and his 7-year-old sister, Minouche, were living at a Port-au-Prince orphanage. It had run out of food and had no medicine to treat parasites that Haitian children regularly catch from drinking and playing in puddles. When Jackson took the siblings from the orphanage, he gave them a remedy that costs about 5 cents in the United States, a pill that wiped out the worms in one day. Now, Rico has added weight to bones that once showed through his skin, and he's rarely without a smile across cheeks that have become almost plump for the first time in his life.
Rico and Minouche Morena joined five other children who share the three-bedroom home Jackson rents in Port-au-Prince. After traveling to Haiti a half dozen times over the past two years to hand out medicine and food to the poor, Jackson opened the makeshift orphanage in December. He pays for it by scraping together donations from family and friends, and by using almost every dime of money he made as a golf caddy.
Jackson's commitment to the orphanage has cost him nearly everything. He wears secondhand clothes, has a car that no longer runs, and owns almost no personal possessions. Last year, when money was tight and he either had to give up the orphanage or his own place, he moved out of his apartment. He now sleeps on the floor of a homeless shelter.
Meanwhile, he's building a school in southern Haiti and has plans to open a health clinic on the northern coast. And even more ambitious, Jackson has handed out 20,000 deworming pills since he began his efforts in Haiti two years ago. "I know it sounds crazy," Jackson says, "but I want to deworm every person in Haiti."
Few places need the help more. Just a two-hour flight from South Florida, Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, where most get by on $1 a day and only one in five has a job. The seemingly endless political unrest has led to the murder of more than 700 people in the past eight months, and a kidnapping epidemic has escalated to the point where armed thugs snatch up to a dozen people a day.
On a recent trip, Jackson traveled the war-torn city of Port-au-Prince to hand out medicine and food in the corners of the city where few foreigners venture, where people live in squatter villages built from scraps, and where the strain between residents and thugs seems ready to explode. Those who accept his donations have no idea that, back in America, Jackson is hardly better off himself: homeless and often penniless.
Visitors to Port-au-Prince often say the most harrowing part of the trip is the airport. Porters and taxi drivers fight over the dollar tips from Americans coming off planes until they jump into transports headed, most likely, for a guarded compound outside the city. Jackson, meanwhile, gets off his plane from Fort Lauderdale on June 14 and bounds into the back of a tap-tap, the lowest form of transportation in Haiti. His rented tap-tap is an ancient red Toyota pickup with two bench seats and a homemade metal cover over the bed. He sits in the back next to his best friend and partner in Haiti, John Louis Dieubon.
"Did you teach the kids the songs?" Jackson asks.
"Oh, yes. They know the songs."
"Did you teach them the play?" Jackson continues.
"Oh, yes. They know the play." Dieubon chuckles at every question, as if he has been down this route many times before, and he flashes a broad smile.
Jackson puts an arm around his partner as the tap-tap turns off the paved roads with their crowds of homeless and bounds down a dirt road that seems impossibly rutted. They continue down a road past metal shacks where squatters sell fried plantains and sugarcane stalks. The homes, all behind cinderblock walls and gates, become increasingly rundown as the tap-tap continues toward the orphanage.
"We don't really teach them songs and plays," Jackson clarifies. At other orphanages, he explains, children recite plays and songs perfectly while having no food or clean water. "So every time I come," he adds, "I give him trouble about not teaching them."
After the tap-tap crunches across the gravel courtyard and Jackson is swamped by the kids, he puts his backpack down next to a pair of mattresses laid out on the floor of one of the three bedrooms. Dieubon will share the room with Jackson while he's here. Jackson takes a quick tour of the orphanage, which is made entirely of concrete -- the ceiling, walls, and even the floors are all as hard and cold as a prison. Put the house in Boca Raton and the neighbors would call code enforcement. But here, the place is a palace, complete with sheets hanging in the windows, a bucket out back to wash clothes, and an electric stove that works when the power comes on. With electricity spotty in Haiti, the only power comes from extension cords run to the neighbor's house. Some days, electricity comes to the orphanage, so the neighbor reverses the extension cord.
With storm clouds rolling in, the home is shadowy. But even with the concrete floors, which continue in to the concrete shower shared by the kids, the place is spotless. After his quick inspection, Jackson points to his friend. "He built this, you know. He put all this together."
Jackson ran into Dieubon during his first trip to Haiti in June 2003. Jackson, a native of a small Florida Panhandle town, had dropped out of Valencia Community College that year. He was looking for some greater meaning to life that he thought he might find in doing work for the poor. He moved to Hollywood to work for Sean Cononie, who runs a homeless shelter in Hollywood that doubles as the offices for the Homeless Voice newspaper. Jackson's $300-a-week job was to run Cononie's new international campaign. He organized protests and tried to raise awareness for debt relief for Third World countries and human rights violations in China and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Jackson shared an apartment in Hollywood he paid for by making about $2,000 a month as a caddy at the Presidential Country Club in North Miami Beach.
One of his first efforts for Cononie was to organize the relief trip to Haiti in 2003. Jackson recruited the help of his then-girlfriend, Corrine Coffey, and long-time family friend Dr. Chuck Presti, an allergist from Pensacola. The three handed out food and medicine in Port-au-Prince's infamously grim slum, Cité Soleil. Supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who once dominated the neighborhood, have now been relegated to a few thousand shacks packed together on a muddy flood plain near the port. In English, the place translates to Sun City, but for those who live there, there's nowhere darker.
Much of Haiti's violence comes from thugs who freely operate kidnapping and carjacking rings. Haitian police and United Nations peacekeepers rarely enter. Presti treated everything from stomach bugs to gunshot wounds from a makeshift clinic built from scraps of metal and cinderblocks. While touring the slum, Presti says Jackson came across a starving baby lying alone in the doorway to a dirt-floor shack. The baby's limbs were the size of twigs. Jackson immediately wanted to bring the child back to the States. "I had to tell him that this baby could die on the plane," Presti says, "and that trying to adopt it could be a nightmare." Instead, they admitted the baby to a hospital, where street children in Haiti are typically not allowed.
Presti's translator while in Cité Soleil was 33-year-old Dieubon, a waif of a man with an infectious smile and a head of scraggly, endlessly curly hair. When Dieubon was a toddler, his parents gave him up to a priest when they could no longer afford to keep him. Missionaries from the United States took him in, and he grew up in a home owned by the Assemblies of God. Hundreds of families who rotated in and out of Haiti every few months took on the job of raising him. He'd form an attachment with a family, and then they'd leave, sometimes never coming back. But comparatively, Dieubon saw his upbringing as a fortunate one in a city where an estimated 7,000 kids live on the streets. He had a home and people who cared for him and sent him to school, something highly valued in a country in which nearly half the population can't read.
"I was loved by many people," he says. "I wanted to give that to other people."
Now, Dieubon runs a missionary home that's rarely occupied. His job is to keep it up until missionaries arrive, so most of his time he spends handing out food and medicine and occasionally working as a translator for American missionaries. But his passion is doing exactly what that priest did for him, rescuing orphans and children whose parents can't care for them and finding them a place to live.
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.
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?"
But word of his charity had spread, and he was getting a steady flow of donations. Cononie alone had agreed to give $1,200 a month. A fellow caddy, Scott King, has also been helping Jackson raise money. King got his father, a financial planner, to ask his clients to donate money, and his father agreed to match every dollar donated up to $25,000. King says he was convinced Jackson's efforts were genuine after hearing him constantly speak about the kids of Haiti. "Day in and day out," King says, "he'd talk about some injustice and the plight of children. Most of us were just talking about golf, and all he could think about were those children."
Two years into his work now, Jackson says he may be on the verge of something bigger than he dreamed. He's now part way through building a school in southern Haiti that will serve poor residents near the city of Saint Louis du Sud. In May, a donor gave him a building in the northern city of Cap Haitien that he hopes to convert into a free health clinic. He's partnered with a doctor there to provide work for free. He hopes to hire nurses later this year and begin shipping in medical supplies.
Coming up with the money for his projects is never his concern. Jackson isn't religious, but when asked about it, he always has the same answer. "Divine intervention," he says with a smile cutting through his tangled beard. "That's how I get everything done." So far, he has no funding for the hospital, and while construction has begun on the school, he has no source of money to run it once it opens.
Jackson began his charity with the vague idea of helping people, he says, but now he wants to move permanently to the orphanage to be closer to the kids he's taken in. There are seven of them, each one with horrific stories of how they've come to be there.
On the front porch of the orphanage, on Jackson's second morning during his visit in June, the kids crowd onto a wooden bench for one of their first French lessons. They sit below a mural of crayon-green trees and a cloudless blue sky. The mural was a project Coffey and Jackson finished on a weeklong trip in May. Jackson sits cross-legged in the corner as the kids get French lessons from Dieubon's girlfriend, Ruth Accede, a 22-year-old in a flowing sundress and clanking baubles around her wrist.
"What is your name?" she asks in French to Ritchy, the group's oldest.
"Je m'appelle Ritchy," he answers carefully. Learning French will be crucial if they hope to leave poverty behind in adulthood. In Haiti, speaking French is a sign of education in a country where only 60 percent of kids go to school. Jackson says his kids will start school for the first time this fall, even though he has no idea where he'll find the $200 yearly tuition per student.
"What is your name?" Accede asks Ritchy's brother.
"Je m'appelleClarence," he answers quickly.
"What is your mother's name?"
Clarence shifts uncomfortably on the wooden bench before answering. He looks down at his feet dangling off the floor. "My mother is dead," he answers in Creole.
Accede doesn't correct him for speaking in Creole. But she asks again in French, "What was her name?"
Clarence fidgets and then whispers the name of his mother, whom he watched drown just eight months earlier. "Doune."
At the orphanage, it's hard to picture the lives these children had before. Here, they are profoundly happy. They seem to smile constantly, giggling nonstop, and the reason seems as simple as the fact that they have a roof over their heads and three meals a day. When they arrived, Dieubon gave each one matching pairs of black plastic sandals. For many, it was their first pair of shoes. Then they got new shorts and T-shirts for play and dresses and khakis for school, the first time for many that they had more than just the ratty set of clothes on their backs. It was also the first time that they ate hot food regularly and bathed in anything but rainwater.
While sitting in a folding chair with Rico and Clarence fidgeting in his lap, Dieubon tells of how he found the seven kids. The only furniture in the orphanage's living room are folding chairs and some old schoolhouse desks, so Dieubon's voice echoes eerily. He tells the story in English, so the children, who are running around fighting over Jackson's hat, don't know that he is telling of the horrors they lived through before coming here.
Virtually every morning of their lives before they landed at the orphanage, 6-year-old Kerlinda Chrisostome and 3-year-old Stephanie Dad woke up to somebody kicking them off a front porch. Their homeless mother, looking for any dry spot for them to bed down, usually waited to sneak onto the porches until the homeowners went to sleep only to be awakened when their unwitting hosts shooed them off. Like two-thirds of Haiti's population, they had no access to clean water, drinking mostly from puddles. They ate only rare handouts.
Stephanie was malnourished even before she was born. She had never learned to walk, even at 3 years old, her legs too weak to support her weight. A friend told Dieubon about them, and in December, he convinced their mother to let him take them. "I said, 'I am going to help you with those girls because I know you have no place to live. '" In May, she stopped by the orphanage for the first time to check on them. "She was amazed," Dieubon says. "She didn't know her daughter could walk."
Dieubon found 5-year-old Steve Michel living in a mud hut with his family, hidden in the rural area east of Port-au-Prince. Like hundreds of thousands of families in Haiti, his parents moved from the countryside to the city in the hope of finding work. Cheap imported rice from the United States has put many Haitian farmers out of work, and they now live in makeshift shantytowns built into Port-au-Prince's hillsides. Steve's family had no food and relied on rainwater to drink. Dieubon heard about the family's inability to feed Steve, and when he asked, they didn't hesitate to turn him over.
Rico and Minouche came from an orphanage managed by a priest who had run out of food and money. "In Haiti," Dieubon says, "many people try to make money by running an orphanage. They will take the money and give no food to the children." When Minouche arrived, she had an infection that had festered on her chin. It looked like a macabre goatee of puss and scabs. Dieubon treated it easily with an antibiotic; there's nothing left of it now but a slight shadow on the spot where it once grew.
Ritchy and Clarence Exama came after the floods washed away everything they had. In September of last year, the brothers were living with their parents in a tin hut in a town north of Port-au-Prince, in the country's largely out-of-work agricultural valley. In Haiti, 99 percent of its forests have been cut down, mostly to make charcoal, the only source of cooking fuel for the poor. When Hurricane Jeanne parked itself over Haiti in September, the deforestation caused landslides and floods that washed into the valley. At least 1,500 died, and 300,000 lost their homes. When asked about it, Ritchy speaks as if he's talking about something far removed from him.
"The water came inside our house," Ritchy recalls in Creole. "It came in, and people were killed. Houses floated away." Ritchy says his house was spared. His father, a watch repairman, kept the family safe until American soldiers arrived to save them. "They are still alive," he says of his parents. He tells the story with a bright, toothy smile. It's a grin that gives away nothing of his refusal to believe what really happened to his family.
Speaking in English, Dieubon says their father was the first to drown in the flood. Then their mother washed away. A grandfather took in the boys but couldn't afford to feed them. Dieubon heard their story and took them to the orphanage in December. "They watched their whole family die," he says.
Clarence and Ritchy are rarely out of arm's length of each other since they watched their parents wash away. They share a bunk bed and crowd together on the wooden bench when they report for morning lessons. So when Clarence heard that Ritchy was leaving in the morning, he burst into tears that streamed down his cheeks. Accede picked him up and cradled the 6-year-old in her arms like a toddler, but nothing could make him stop. Ritchy, meanwhile, changed into a striped polo shirt and a pair of dress pants that were two inches too short. He piled into a Toyota van Dieubon had borrowed, and for the rest of the day, Ritchy would see what life would be like if Jackson hadn't taken him in.
Out the rutted road from the orphanage, Dieubon headed southwest into the places foreigners aren't supposed to go. He angled the van through a roundabout and onto a potholed, two-lane boulevard nicknamed Airport Road. This strip is where thugs often pull motorists from their cars and torture them until their families can come up with tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Abandoned airplanes rot in a field off to the left. Stripped cars lay forgotten on dirt paths that serve as sidewalks. Few people are walking, which is rare in a city with little public transportation, a clear sign of the dangers that lurk down this road. Even though 8,500 peacekeepers from the United Nations patrol Haiti, they are rarely seen in the dangerous parts.
Jackson is perhaps one of the only foreigners for miles. He's a clear target riding in the front seat. "Yes," Dieubon admits, "it is not so OK here."
But Dieubon says they have little choice. They must travel this road or feel personally responsible for the suffering of the children at the end of it, who could starve or die of malnutrition without his regular visits. They're headed to one of Port-au-Prince's poorest orphanages, the Centre El-Bethel House of Children. It's common to find the orphanage with no food. The road dumps onto a truss bridge covered in mud that spans the swollen Riviére Grise, or Gray River. Then the road thins as it enters another of Port-au-Prince's ramshackle and unnamed neighborhoods. Vendors lined everywhere on the road hawk lottery tickets and buckets of charcoal made from the trees stripped off the hillsides.
Along the way, Jackson tells of his first foray trying to help people. It started when he got a calling when he was 17. It wasn't something as profound as a sign from God, just an overpowering notion to go to the bus station in Destin. "I just went," he recalls. "And I just bought a ticket to anywhere." Anywhere ended up being San Antonio, Texas. There, he found a homeless man who had been shot in the leg. He invited the man to stay the night with him. "After we got there, I thought, 'Who is this guy I just invited back to my hotel room?'" He could've killed me in the middle of the night." The next morning, Jackson bought him medicine, clothes, and food and gave him whatever money he had in his pocket. Afterward, Jackson says, he realized how foolish his idea was. He wanted to continue helping people, but he needed to figure out a better and safer way to do it. "I didn't know what it was going to be," he says, "but I knew after that that I wanted to help people."
Dieubon turns down a dirt road, and a mile into a neighborhood built from tin and cinderblock scraps, he blares his horn at a gate propped up with a tree branch. The gate swings open, and Dieubon takes the van into a courtyard criss-crossed with full clotheslines, despite the downpour all morning. Under a lean-to built from discarded metal and rotting wood, a group of girls washes clothes in a bucket. The younger kids play on the dirt floor nearby. Unlike the children at Jackson's orphanage, these look troubled. Their faces look full of an adult-like worry, perhaps the concern that comes with wondering how they'll find their next meal. Ritchy looks out of place next to the other orphans. Few of them have shoes, and their hair is uncombed and spiraling in knots. Looking a bit afraid to be left behind, Ritchy clings to Jackson's pants leg.
Soon, the orphanage's superintendent, Milhomme Luckner, arrives in a pair of pressed dress pants and a polo shirt. Unlike the gaunt, underweight kids, he has a small potbelly that pokes the front of his white shirt. He looks young for 37, but his bloodshot eyes droop wearily. He orders wooden chairs brought in for the visitors.
"How's your food supply?" Jackson asks.
"I have not much food," Luckner says. "You can visit my food store."
"How about soap? Do you have soap?"
"No, no soap," the superintendent admits.
Luckner takes the visitors over to the storeroom, a bleak, unpainted closet in the concrete building that holds the orphanage. There are five 20-pound bags of rice and four bags of lentils. Catholic Charities gives him the bags every three months. With 35 orphans here, it rarely lasts that long. And the constant diet of nothing but beans and rice leaves them malnourished. Many now have hair that looks partly bleached, turning red and blond -- clear signs that their diet is lacking in nutrients.
"They do not give me different things," says Luckner, who has run the orphanage for 15 years under the same conditions. "I have a burden. I have children to feed with only this."
The group walks back under the makeshift shelter where the children stay out of the rain. Ritchy holds Jackson's hand to make sure he's close. "We would like to pass out deworming medicine to your children," Jackson tells the superintendent. "Is that OK?"
Luckner pauses for a second, obviously confused by what's meant by "deworming." But he agrees.
Jackson pulls the medicine from his backpack, which is stuffed with hundreds of aspirin-sized bottles. Buying them in bulk from Presti, the doctor from Pensacola, the 400-milligram chewable Mebendazole pills cost pennies, a fraction of the $40 Haitians pay a hospital for deworming medicine. Jackson brought 10,000 pills with him on that trip in June, doubling his previous contributions. He gives them to orphanages, priests, doctors, and anybody who will distribute them to others. He has passed out enough antidotes to treat 20,000 people, costing him about $1,000. His efforts are much needed in Haiti, where the United Nations estimates that half of the country's 8 million residents live with intestinal parasites. About 40 percent of Haitian children suffer from malnutrition in part because of the worms.
At Luckner's orphanage, the children line up on a wooden bench with their hands cupped in front of them. Jackson hands out the deworming pills like a priest giving Communion.
Before leaving, Dieubon explains to the children in Creole that the worms eat the food before it can be digested. He warns them that they will have a rough night.
"Tonight as you sleep, the worms will crawl out your nose or from your behind. Do not be scared. If you see one in your nose, pull it out."
The kids look terrified, and Luckner looks confused. Nobody told him about worms coming out of their noses before he agreed to this.
"Before you eat your food," Dieubon continues, "make sure there are not any worms on it. Wash your hands before you eat. Pray to God that you will not get any diseases. And pray to God for the problems in our society and pray for a better life for Haiti."
Jackson leaves Luckner with two boxes of antibiotics. He explains that they're for infections, but Luckner keeps asking if he can use them to prevent fevers. The group loads into the van and heads back toward central Port-au-Prince.
Sitting in the back of the van, Ritchy looks relieved to have not been left behind.
Jackson's next mission is clearly the most dangerous of his efforts in Haiti.
Guards lean on shotguns at the supermarket where Dieubon and Jackson make their purchases. They fill a shopping cart full of juice boxes and cookies they will use to entice the street kids before handing them deworming medicine.
Ritchy walks along with the grocery cart, clutching the handle. "How are you, Ritchy, OK?" Jackson asks.
"I am OK," he says, one of a few English phrases Jackson has taught him. He smiles but looks nervous.
They leave the store with a cardboard box full of juice boxes and cookies. They cross a street called Delmas 31, a main thoroughfare made for two lanes of traffic but packed with four. The sidewalks are a crowded mess of vendors set up on tables of driftwood and tree branches, selling everything from plungers to shampoo, from bottles of soda to coconuts.
Everywhere, the people selling something, walking with bowls of something on their heads, or begging for something turn to look at Jackson, perhaps one of the only white men for miles. There's an indescribable feeling of tension on the streets, as in those adrenaline-filled moments before a fistfight. It's entirely possible that a car full of AK-47-toting thugs will pull up and whisk Jackson away for days of torture and death. The lead story in the day's paper described the kidnapping of a principal from his school's front gate. The kidnappers shot him in both legs before demanding $200,000 in ransom from his wife.
Maybe the kidnappers leave Jackson alone because he's there to help, or perhaps it's because Ritchy is riding him piggyback. Or maybe it's simply because most of the people he passes look befuddled to see a foreigner walking the streets without a customary armed escort from U.N. peacekeepers.
"We will hand out things here," Dieubon says on a rare empty spot of sidewalk with no street vendors. There are no street children around at first. But as they begin to offer the handouts, kids appear from everywhere. Dieubon hands out the juice and food as Jackson passes out the pills from his backpack. The free food quickly creates a mob. Teenagers push aside toddlers who walk barefoot on the trash-strewn sidewalks. An old man with a beard full of dirt and wearing nothing but rags takes cookies from a boy who himself looks starved.
"Let's keep walking," Jackson says.
A small crowd follows them down the street. Some of the kids recognize Dieubon and Jackson. A 16-year-old named Sonson follows along, sipping on a juice box. Asked what chances he has of getting off the streets, he answers blankly in Creole: "There is no hope for me. I cannot get a house. I do not have anyone who will help." Then he smiles as he eats the cookies. It seems his future is so clearly bleak that it's no longer a concern.
Jackson spots a kid in the crowd. "Hey! You see this kid right here?" Jackson says, patting the back of a teenager in a baby-blue polo shirt. "He saved my life one time." Jackson tells of a trip a year ago, when he brought a video camera to record the life of street children. As he was filming, a mob of people began a protest. When they saw Jackson, the crowd tore at him. He turned to run, but they were nearly on him. "This kid pulled me into a house," Jackson says. "If he hadn't, they would have torn me apart."
They turn the corner onto a side street used mostly as the neighborhood's trash can. They step over an open manhole stuffed with trash and maneuver around a pile of cardboard somebody used recently as a mattress. Dieubon opens up the box again, and a new crowd forms in seconds from nowhere. Soon, they're pulling at the sides of the box to push their hands inside. The contents are gone in seconds, but Jackson manages to hand out some the medicine.
On the way back to the car, walking hand in hand with Ritchy, Jackson has a confession to make. "I had no money for this trip, not a dime. The day before I left, I got a $1,000 check in the mail. A donation. I don't even know who it was from, but it saved me."
Back at the orphanage, Ritchy is mobbed by the other kids. His brother can't stop smiling now that Ritchy is back. For a boy who has watched his parents float away, losing his brother now might have been too much to bear. He asks Ritchy what he did. "We went everywhere," Ritchy says shyly.
In a couple of days, a shipment of food Jackson sent from the States will arrive. He'll bring a portion of it to the Centre El-Bethel House, where, Jackson says, the superintendent will tell of the worms that crawled from the noses of every kid.
But for now, Jackson slumps in one of the school chairs and lets the kids climb all over him. They pat his hair and tug on his oversized shirt. Then he spins Rico over and tickles his stomach. It's still bloated from the worms that nearly killed him. But slowly, he's healing.
Staff Writer Eric Alan Barton's trip to Haiti was made possible through a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit icfj.org. Jackson can be reached at chickgrantfoundation.org.