Longform

Saint Aaron

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"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."

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton