Longform

Saint Aaron

Page 2 of 9

"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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton