Back in the 1960s, America declared a war on poverty. The government funneled millions into "community development" programs, recruited neighborhood enablers, financed jobs programs, and then, by the 1970s, realizing that poverty was the most tenacious of adversaries, pretty much gave up the effort. By the time the Reagan administration came around, it was widely assumed that poor people were poor because they wanted to be poor. Greed was in.
About five years ago, a callow young man from northern Florida decided he didn't believe that. He wanted to do something about poverty himself. With just the glimmer of an idea, Aaron Jackson traveled to Haiti's Port-au-Prince, hooked up with some like-minded Haitians, and established a home for street kids, which he subsequently financed with his earnings as a golf caddy. A simple, preposterous idea that, crazily enough, worked.
Since then, Jackson, a rangy, shaggy-haired 26-year-old who seems to embody, without the rhetorical flourishes, all the selfless idealism of the 1960s and Bobby Kennedy ("I dream things that never were and I say, 'Why not?' "), has brought his magic touch to other nations. His organization, Planting Peace, now sponsors, among others, a homeless shelter in Guatemala, a home for teenaged prostitutes in Ecuador, and a home for children with AIDS in Port-au-Prince's gritty Cité de Soleil (see www.plantingpeace.org). He has also almost single-handedly dewormed much of Haiti, where thousands of children die from malnourishment every year, largely because of digestive parasites.
How does Jackson do it? It's the polar opposite of the federal approach, with its block grants and Frankenstein bureaucracy. Jackson has quit his caddy job, of course, and Planting Peace now gets contributions from churches and synagogues. But the emphasis is still on "small scale, sustainable projects."
Jackson recently went to Cambodia and, predictably, left the seeds of a program behind.
"I've always been interested in Southeast Asia," Jackson says. "I wanted to possibly open up a home for children involved in the sex trade there. So I went there to see, you know, what was up. We originally wanted to fly straight into Cambodia, but it was $3,000 cheaper per ticket to fly into Thailand and just bus it over the border to the capital, Phnom Penh. One of the cities along the way — about three days on the bus from Thailand — is Sihanoukville, a beautiful coastal city that has a lot of tourism.
"It was just me and this guy I went to high school with, Matthew Chambliss. He was on the golf team with me, but, like, we hadn't spoken at all since high school. He heard about some of the things I was doing and asked if he could help out. I told him I was thinking about going to Cambodia, and he said he was in.
"So the first day we're in Sihanoukville, we check into the hotel and Matt's hanging out in the room. I decide I'm going to go out and get some lunch. As soon as I get to a place, I like to figure out what the deal is. I like to get into the underground and talk to people. This woman serving me lunch started telling me about — she called them 'tree people' — people who live under the trees. This town is covered with beach chairs, and there are people who come sit by the ocean. These people were living under trees! I had to meet them immediately.
"I tried to do this hand-talking thing I do, where I try to communicate, trying to figure out, you know, what their deal is. Finally, a kid walked over and translated for me. I just started asking, 'Is there anything I can do to help you?'
"Most of them were amputees, hurt by land mines. Cambodia has a huge land mine problem. People lose limbs all the time. These people were homeless and basically had their children go out to the beaches and beg the tourists for money for food. But this is monsoon season, and there are no tourists.
"Another kid came over to see what was going on — there was a big group gathered around by now to see this random American here asking all these questions. This kid said his family had a house with eight rooms, basically an eight-bedroom hotel, they would rent for one dollar per room for each day.
"So it worked out beautifully. Within one hour of talking to them, all these tree people had housing. I cut a check for the entire year; it came to something like $2,900. That included $50 extra, like a tip for making it happen so fast.
"And these people, they needed food, case management — the kids need school, which is free in Cambodia, but there's no agency to make sure they go. We decided to start a shelter right there. Matt said he'd stay there and run it for a while.