Saint Aaron

Page 4 of 9

His friends, who have come to jokingly nickname him "Jesus," weren't surprised when he gave up his own place. Many of them, like 25-year-old Justin Chrisman, who was Jackson's roommate before Jackson moved into the shelter, have been recruited to serve on an advisory board Jackson set up for his charity. "I really don't know what made him decide to take this route that's so different than everybody else," Chrisman says. "I can't imagine choosing to live in a homeless shelter."

Just what drives him to live in squalor isn't clear. He's often asked if it's rich-kid guilt, some kind of shame over growing up wealthy. "It's not that," he says simply. He explains it in terms using phrases that sound as if they came from posters on the wall of a high school guidance counselor, but he says them with a deep sincerity. "I believe that everyone's mission," he says, "ought to be to make the world a better place."

In April, Jackson lost his job at the country club over a petty disagreement with his boss. It was clear by then, anyway, that he couldn't continue working there. "People would pull up in $100,000 cars," Jackson says, "and I would think, how many kids could they have helped in Haiti instead of buying that car?"

But word of his charity had spread, and he was getting a steady flow of donations. Cononie alone had agreed to give $1,200 a month. A fellow caddy, Scott King, has also been helping Jackson raise money. King got his father, a financial planner, to ask his clients to donate money, and his father agreed to match every dollar donated up to $25,000. King says he was convinced Jackson's efforts were genuine after hearing him constantly speak about the kids of Haiti. "Day in and day out," King says, "he'd talk about some injustice and the plight of children. Most of us were just talking about golf, and all he could think about were those children."

Two years into his work now, Jackson says he may be on the verge of something bigger than he dreamed. He's now part way through building a school in southern Haiti that will serve poor residents near the city of Saint Louis du Sud. In May, a donor gave him a building in the northern city of Cap Haitien that he hopes to convert into a free health clinic. He's partnered with a doctor there to provide work for free. He hopes to hire nurses later this year and begin shipping in medical supplies.

Coming up with the money for his projects is never his concern. Jackson isn't religious, but when asked about it, he always has the same answer. "Divine intervention," he says with a smile cutting through his tangled beard. "That's how I get everything done." So far, he has no funding for the hospital, and while construction has begun on the school, he has no source of money to run it once it opens.

Jackson began his charity with the vague idea of helping people, he says, but now he wants to move permanently to the orphanage to be closer to the kids he's taken in. There are seven of them, each one with horrific stories of how they've come to be there.

On the front porch of the orphanage, on Jackson's second morning during his visit in June, the kids crowd onto a wooden bench for one of their first French lessons. They sit below a mural of crayon-green trees and a cloudless blue sky. The mural was a project Coffey and Jackson finished on a weeklong trip in May. Jackson sits cross-legged in the corner as the kids get French lessons from Dieubon's girlfriend, Ruth Accede, a 22-year-old in a flowing sundress and clanking baubles around her wrist.

"What is your name?" she asks in French to Ritchy, the group's oldest.

"Je m'appelle Ritchy," he answers carefully. Learning French will be crucial if they hope to leave poverty behind in adulthood. In Haiti, speaking French is a sign of education in a country where only 60 percent of kids go to school. Jackson says his kids will start school for the first time this fall, even though he has no idea where he'll find the $200 yearly tuition per student.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton