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THE AMBITIONS OF 'SAINT AARON'

An underachieving child of privilege finds his calling in helping Haitian orphans. Aaron Jackson aims to deworm every Haitian child.

Six years ago Aaron Jackson was just another unshaven, unremarkable, underachieving 22-year-old. - Skinny as a rake, with unkempt hair, he'd flunked out of community college and was struggling to sell ads for a homeless shelter newspaper in South Florida. - But then he heard a report on the radio about Haitian famine. - It sparked a simple idea: Collect money to send food. Until then Jackson's accomplishments had been confined mostly to the golf course, but the more he thought about his idea, the larger his ambitions became. - He'd learned a bit about purchasing discounted food in bulk while working at a homeless shelter near Fort Lauderdale. So he set out to raise $30,000 - enough to buy 100 tons of food. - That decision was the first step in the unlikely journey of a seemingly aimless Florida youth, who grew up in the privileged surroundings of a golf resort, but found his calling among some of the poorest children on the planet.

Jackson has been dubbed "Saint Aaron" by a South Florida paper for his dedication to Haitian orphans. His crusade to deworm millions of children who have intestinal parasites earned him a CNN Heroes nomination in 2007, where he was given the title "Medical Marvel." Hollywood actors raise money for him.

"Aaron is a tremendous visionary and he has a heart for the people of Haiti," said Andrew Crawford, a director with Food for the Hungry, an international agency based in Phoenix. "He's utterly selfless, and nothing he thinks of is too big for him."

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Growing up in the Panhandle and Central Florida, there was a time that all Jackson could think of was golf. Grandson of a top Florida developer with Arvida Corp., he lived on a resort in Destin where his stepfather was the head golf pro.

"Golf dominated my world. I would skip school so I could sneak in another 18 holes," he said. "It was my grandfather's resort, so I could invite everyone and their mother on the course. We just played golf all day long."

By his teens he was a scratch golfer, able to shoot 18 holes in even par. He could have turned pro.

"I wouldn't have made any money at it," he said. "I don't think I have the mental game to go on the PGA tour."

He enrolled at Valencia Community College near Orlando, but in 18 months confesses he managed to accumulate only one credit.

"Let's just say he had learning difficulties," says his mother, Wendy Prentice, an artist in Destin. "He's not just ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), he's everything - LMNOP - as well."

Despite his scholastic struggles, Prentice says he was "always a respectful and kind boy," supremely generous to friends and strangers alike. "He was always giving his things away," she said.

There was the trip to New York when Jackson was 10 and he thrust all his pocket money into the hands of a homeless man.

"Homeless people have always intrigued me, if that's the right word," Jackson said.

There was also the time, at age 17, he left home for 10 days without a word to his parents, hopped on a Greyhound in Fort Walton Beach and headed west. "I was lying in bed at night and I just had the overwhelming notion I should go help someone in California," he said.

He made it as far as San Antonio, Texas, where he picked up a homeless man lying in the street and took him back to his $200-a-night hotel. He bought him dinner and clothing. "I remember walking by him and thinking, 'Maybe that's the guy I'm supposed to help,' " he said.

At college, Jackson skipped class to hang out with homeless people in Orlando.

"I guess I felt I had to do something when I was skipping school," he said. "But at that stage it was more out of curiosity. You know, leaving the clubs at night you see all the homeless people out on the street."

But it wasn't until after he dropped out of college in 2002 that he began to see where his future lay.

He went backpacking with his girlfriend in Costa Rica for a month and was shocked by the poverty. Prior to that his only trips abroad were family vacations to the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. "I thought 'What the heck is going on in the world?' " he said.

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Back in the United States he called the National Coalition for the Homeless, and was put in touch with Sean Cononie, who runs a shelter near Fort Lauderdale. He gave Jackson a job selling ads for the Homeless Voice newspaper. Jackson failed to sell a single ad in three months.

It was on his way to work one day that he heard about the famine in Haiti. "I remember telling him that 30,000 children die from hunger every day," said Cononie. "He didn't believe me."

Together they organized a relief trip to Haiti. Jackson sent hundreds of letters to churches all over the country. But only one replied, with a donation of $600. When Jackson discovered Haitian authorities charged heavy food-import taxes, he switched tack and used the money to buy medicine instead. He also recruited a Pensacola doctor and family friend, and a nurse to join the team.

In Haiti, Jackson's eyes were opened to poverty as he'd never seen, or smelled, before.

He vowed to return. He'd met an impressive young Haitian man, John Dieubon. They decided to work together to build a school, and the partnership that would become Planting Peace was born.

On his next trip to Haiti a few months later, he traveled the countryside with Dieubon, scouting places. Jackson was curious to see so many children with big bellies.

"I asked John and he explained it was because of the worms. I was totally grossed. I couldn't fathom that. I asked him 'What does it cost to treat a child?' "

Dieubon said it cost about $20 to get treated by a doctor. Jackson had run out of money, but that night he found a $20 bill in his pants pocket. "So, I picked a kid and gave the mother the money to pay a doctor."

The next day Jackson ran into the mother of the child. "She was crying. She said, 'Thank you, thank you.' Apparently the child would have died if I didn't give her money to deworm the kid."

Suddenly everything fell into place. "I truly believe that if that mother had not come up to me again," he said, "I doubt I would ever have thought about deworming again."

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One thing really bugged him: If it was so easy to deworm a child, why wasn't it being done? Millions of dollars were being spent on sending food aid to poor countries. Wouldn't it make more sense to deworm the children first?

One of the first people he contacted was Claude Good, an elderly Mennonite in Pennsylvania and coordinator of the Worm Project, dedicated to eradicating parasites in poor countries.

Good had learned about worms growing up as a missionary's son in a poor indigenous community in southern Mexico. He was happy to recruit Jackson as a "Worm Warrior."

"Aaron is one of our best warriors," said Good. "He learned very fast."

The United Nations estimates 80 percent of Haiti's 8 million population is infected, mostly children under 14. Because they consume up to 20 percent of a child's nutritional intake a day, exacerbating an already poor diet, the parasites drastically reduce a child's energy. This leads to reduced growth rates, learning problems and illnesses such as dysentery and anemia.

Jackson soon quit the homeless shelter. To make money he returned to the golf course - this time as a caddy. He used his $8 an hour salary to pay for his apartment. His tips, about $100 a day, went to pay for the first of four orphanages he would open with Dieubon in Haiti.

"I would wire him three times a week $20, $30, whatever I had," Jackson said.

It went on that way for 18 months, until donations began to come in. At one point Jackson moved out of his small apartment to save more money for Haiti. Cononie let him sleep on the floor of his office at the homeless shelter.

"It was really hard (raising money) in the very beginning because it was kind of like 'Who are you?' " Jackson said.

In the summer of 2004, Jackson bought his first batch of 20,000 deworming pills at a cost of about $1,000 - a week's work on the golf course. Because he wasn't a registered charity he stuffed the pills in Tylenol bottles to sneak them past Customs in Haiti. "I put the bottles in my backpack and put clothes over them," he said.

"I kept buying more, treating people like that every time I went to Haiti. Now we deal only in the millions, so I don't sneak them in my backpack anymore."

Jackson's persistence eventually won out, and he began to accumulate donors, and useful contacts in the charity world, including Crawford at Food for the Hungry, which helps with logistics, shipping and customs.

"We are glad to come alongside him," said Crawford. "Aaron is deeply self-directed. His vision is not a pipe dream. It's practical."

Fundraising is much easier these days.

Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight in the comedy TV series, The Office, has hosted fundraisers for Planting Peace. An event in Hollywood in April, organized by Wilson and the cast of Comedy Central's Reno 911, raised $10,000, enough to treat more than half a million children.

Wilson first saw Jackson on CNN. Jackson, who doesn't watch TV, had never heard of Wilson or his hit show until the actor phoned last year.

"I think it's such an important story for young Americans to become familiar with and to read," Wilson said in a phone interview with the St. Petersburg Times. Jackson is "someone completely, in the most pure and humble fashion, devoted to the service of others."

"It reminds me of the story of the Buddha," Wilson says. "His parents were kings and they didn't want him to be exposed to any suffering, but he went out (of the palace) one day and he saw a man starving to death, and he wondered 'Why is that man starving?' That became Buddha's spiritual odyssey. Once he saw suffering he had to understand suffering."

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Last week, Jackson was back in Haiti checking up on his orphanages and the 29 children, ages 7 to 16, in his care. Eight of them are infected with the HIV virus. One day he and Dieubon drove out to Ganthier, a town about an hour outside the capital, armed with bottles of albendazole deworming pills.

"Here, take this. Put it in your mouth," Dieubon told Evite, a 3-year-old girl with a distended belly, placing a white pill on her tongue. "Chew it up," he said as she grimaced.

"Get it down, girl," chipped in Jackson, as she tried to spit it out.

"I wish they would make the pills taste a bit better," he said later. "It's sugar-coated, but the kids really don't like it when they bite into it."

Jackson and Dieubon walked up a stony, rubbish-strewn track going from one rickety adobe-built shack to another, looking for malnourished kids.

"See how orange the hair is?" Jackson said, pointing to a barefoot child covered in dirt, the ends of her hair tinged a rusty color, a sign of vitamin deficiency. Jackson bent over and squeezed the child's swollen belly. "See how hard it is? The worms are eating it up, man."

The symptoms are so obvious, and the cure so simple, that you don't have to be a doctor to make a diagnosis. Side effects are considered minimal. It can be given as a preventative to any child who might have worms but not yet show symptoms.

Swollen bellies are so common, many poor Haitians have no idea their children are sick. With no electricity or treated water services, they also have little means to prevent infection.

"Here it's seen as normal," said Jackson. "It's hard to prevent when it's from bad water. It's all they've got."

In Madame Beauge, another nearby village of thatched adobe homes, children ran around the dusty streets without shoes or underwear. A 5-year-old boy, Miguelson, showed advanced signs of malnutrition - distended belly and only patchy, orange-tinted hair. Jackson picked him up and offered him a pill.

His mother, Siliane Milca, 38, was asked if she understood what the pill was for. She shook her head. She seemed mystified when someone explained her son had worms.

Jackson estimates he has handed out 1.7 million deworming pills in Haiti so far. That's still not enough.

In November, he plans to deworm all of Haiti's 3.2 million children. He has already purchased the pills and he is mobilizing a network of volunteers across the country.

He says he can do it in a month.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

* * *

The worldwide toll of intestinal worms

Intestinal worms affect 2 billion people worldwide, 300 million of those severely, according to the World Health Organization, a branch of the United Nations.

Deworming pills are very effective. One dose does the job. But worms thrive in tropical climates and proliferate fast. One worm can lay 200,000 eggs a day. So children easily get reinfected.

Parasites consume up to 20 percent of a child's nutritional intake. But according to U.N. figures, every dollar contributed to deworming in Haiti will result in a boost in nutritional intake measured at between 200 and 300 pounds of food. At 1.55 cents per treatment, the price of a candy bar can save 100 children.

Deworming is becoming a priority among international aid agencies. Last year it was singled out by the Clinton Global Initiative, led by the former U.S. president. Feed the Children recently committed to donate 300 million deworming tablets to various programs worldwide over the next three years. Part of that will go to a program announced last month in Haiti with the Ministry of Health.

"We love deworming," said Rachel Zelon, vice president for international programs at Feed the Children. "It's simple, it's easy, it's inexpensive, and it's so important for the kids."

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FAST FACTS

Planting Peace

For more information, go to www.plantingpeace.org. Contact Planting Peace by phone at (954) 394-4989 or by mail at P.O. Box 221951, Hollywood, FL 33022.

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