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.