"I used to live over there," he said the other day, pointing to a wall in a cluttered little room in the offices of the Homeless Voice in Hollywood. "But now I have the cot." His old space was a spot on the floor, where he used to spread out his sleeping bag. The "cot" is a fold-out platform sofa, onto which he has piled most of his worldly possessions.
Still, not much there. A backpack and some articles of clothing. Jackson travels light.
For the past four years, Jackson's travels have taken him, about once a month, to Haiti, where he has set up homes and service centers for street children. These now include an orphanage, with seven children, and a home for children with AIDS, with ten, in Port-au-Prince's scabrous Cité Soleil section. There's a naive, blundering quality to Jackson whom New Times dubbed "Saint Aaron" two years ago in a cover story that somehow overcomes all the obvious obstacles to pulling off his clearly lunatic plans.
A skinny white guy whose only resources were a modest salary as a golf-course caddy, setting up a home for orphans in Haiti? Ridiculous.
But three years ago, Jackson, now 25, somehow hooked up with some like-minded people in Haiti, notably Jean Bondieu, himself a former street kid who became a kind of onsite supervisor for Jackson's harebrained projects. Miraculously, they succeeded in housing a small group of street kids in a modest concrete building in Cité Soleil. The dollars Jackson earned as a caddy weren't much in South Florida terms, but they carried a lot of weight in Haiti.
Jackson, in his blithe, lighthearted style, has also found plenty of stateside allies. One is Sean Cononie, director of a homeless residence in Hollywood that doubles as the headquarters for Homeless Voice. Cononie took Jackson in and assigned him to be a kind of international representative whose portfolio is ending world hunger. Knowing Jackson, he just might succeed. (His salary? Cononie laughs. "Aaron doesn't really spend money," he says.)
So far, with the help of organizations like First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and Temple Beth El, as well as a lot of individuals attracted to the cause by the New Times article, there's now a homeless shelter in Guatemala and a home for teenaged prostitutes in Ecuador, as well as Jackson and company's little stake-out in Cité Soleil. All of them are, according to Jackson's website, "small scale, sustainable projects."
Next on the agenda, though, something large-scale: ridding Haiti of parasitic worms.
Every time Jackson flies down to Haiti, he takes cases of albendazole with him. The pink, mint-flavored tablets, each with a 400 mg dose, are enough to rid a body of the pinworms and tapeworms that cause the distended bellies and popped-out navels Americans associate with Third World starvation. Public health officials have estimated that 40 percent of Haiti's 8 million people have the parasites, which break down nutrients and ultimately kill their hosts. To treat the entire population of the nation would cost about $160,000, Jackson estimates. It's doable. Jackson and his organization, Planting Peace, have already administered 50,000 doses, with contributions still coming in.
What motivates Jackson? How could he not do what he's doing? he suggests. There are 150 million children in the world who live on the street, he says. "It's common sense. You see a child starving and you want to feed that child."
On May 13, China White nightclub in Fort Lauderdale will hold a night of hip-hop and soul to raise funds for Planting Peace. Look around for a battered cylinder boogying on the floor.
The Sound of Silence
It's been a month since Lois Frankel narrowly won reelection as mayor of West Palm Beach, and you can already feel the impact on the economy. What's that rumble? Moving vans. A bunch of them are heading away from West Palm Beach, away from Frankel. And they're carrying away some of the city's most involved residents.
Alex Saylor, West Palm activist and regular speaker during the public-comment period of City Commission meetings, notes "a slow drain of really active citizens" out of the city. Saylor himself is moving to Central Florida.
Debra Neger, president of the Northend Coalition of Neighborhoods and the Northwoods Neighborhood Association and a member of the city's Nuisance Abatement Board, as well as a regular at commission meetings, is also packing her bags.
"The election was the deciding factor, the nail in the coffin," she says.
Neger's sick of high taxes and the negligible police presence on the city's north side, she says. She feels alienated by the voters in the western neighborhoods who, according to her, aren't engaged with city issues. They could have made a difference in the mayoral election, she says.