Aaron Jackson is stepping up in the world.
"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.
"I've really closed the blinds," Neger says. "I'm focusing on getting the house sold and getting out of here."
Another activist, Hank Porcher, who ran unsuccessfully for a commission seat in 2004, left town for the same reasons last year.
"We're the watchdogs of the community," Saylor says. "Now nobody's watching."
Tailpipe hesitates to make too much of the disappearance of a handful of civic-minded loudmouths. But, yes, it's been awfully quiet at West Palm commission meetings. One of the city's most engrossing spectator sports used to be the colorful cast of gadflies taking turns rousing Frankel's famous temper. With her March 13 victory, Frankel has, at least temporarily, silenced a once-cacophonous chorus of dissenting voices that, for a moment there, almost seemed capable of heaving her from office.
"It's Lois' way or the highway," Saylor says glumly. "And I'm choosing the highway."
Tailpipe sure hopes Larry Deetjen saved a chunk of his $149,500-a-year salary from his former position as city manager of Deerfield Beach, since his new job search doesn't seem to be going too well. It looks like his past with the help of Google is haunting him.
If you recall, Deetjen resigned under pressure in December. In recent years, he had developed stormy relationships with other commissioners, best illustrated by a 2005 altercation with Commissioner Steve Gonot that involved Deetjen's calling for deputies to remove Gonot from office. Later, Deetjen lost the public's trust when he was accused of conspiring with a plaintiff who was suing the City of Deerfield. Then, he topped even himself in 2006, allegedly going off on a racist tirade against a black parking cop at the airport.
Since then, Deetjen has applied as city manager of Provincetown, Massachusetts but was passed over. Minutes from a meeting there February 17 of the Board of Selectmen show that elected official Sarah Peake Googled him, then found that Deetjen didn't satisfactorily answer her questions regarding an article that came up. Peake's fellow administrator, Michele Couture, said that Deetjen "came off as a little hostile." Blaaat.
Two weeks ago, the City of Titusville, Florida, narrowed its city manager search down from 89 to seven applicants but Deetjen, who applied, didn't make the cut there either. Blaaat.
Now, he's set his sights on Belle Glade, where's he's applied to be the interim city manager until a permanent replacement is found. Since three other people have tried and left the position in less than a year, the city is determined to do a more thorough candidate search this time around. Belle Glade Commissioner Gwen Asia-Williams told her local paper, The Sun, that officials are looking for a "people person someone who knows how to manage with compassion." Well, good luck to Deetjen. Belle Glade's population is 70 percent black. And as part of the hiring process, commissioners have vowed to do a Google search on each candidate.
50 Cent Cares Less
Dana Winrow of Fort Lauderdale had been helping her mom (who asked that her name not be used because she's publicity shy), an English teacher, prep students for the SAT, but when it came to concepts like subject/verb agreement or dangling participles, the young'uns "just weren't getting it," she says. "Kids don't realize that [many colloquialisms] are wrong, because they hear them all the time." Enter an unlikely helper: 50 Cent. Winrow caught an interview with the rapper in which he said he "could care less" about Oprah not inviting him on her show. What he really meant was that he couldn't care less! Grrr!
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Ah, well, one man's grammatical flub turned out to be a schoolmarm's treasure, as it sparked Winrow's idea of starting CelebrityEnglish.com, a website where she uses celebrity gossip to explain the rules of formal writing. There was no dearth of examples on sites like PerezHilton.com and TheSuperficial.com, and soon, Winrow was running scandalous headlines of her own like "Shiloh, Angelina, Brad, and an Error in Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement!"
Recently, Winrow expanded CelebrityEnglish to include a "jukebox" section. Music critics, she notes, are often awesome writers and they use a lot of big vocabulary words that commonly pop up in the SAT test booklet. So she pastes music reviews from pitchforkmedia.com and fluxblog.org, highlights the vocabulary words, and links to their definitions.
Winrow says she receives about 2,000 to 3,000 hits a week from sites around the world. "What's more interesting to me is not the number of hits," she says, "but how deep people go how many pages of the site they look at. Some people will spend a lot of time, looking at 50 pages of explanations. That makes me excited because it means somebody's actually trying to learn."
As told to Edmund Newton