Posted on Sun, Nov. 11, 2007
Young idealist wants to cure a major health woe in Haiti
BY TRENTON DANIEL
About three years ago, Aaron Jackson had something of an epiphany. While helping build an elementary school in rural Haiti, he inquired about all the kids with bloated bellies.
"They have worms,'' Jackson was told.
Jackson, now 26, couldn't shake the thought of so many kids with an ailment that could be treated with ease. So he took on intestinal parasites as his cause.
With more than four million Haitians believed to carry worms, Jackson says he wants to help deworm Haiti and prevent further outbreaks through education.
By year's end, the Hollywood resident expects to deworm about 1.7 million in this struggling Caribbean nation. He has helped raise about $200,000 to support the work since the Haiti project's inception.
Born into a well-to-do family from the Panhandle beach resort town of Destin, Jackson grew up playing golf daily. He later studied golf management at Valencia Community College in Orlando but dropped out.
''I was just going to school because people are taught you can't survive in the real world unless you go to school,'' Jackson said from a bedroom he shares with two others at a Hollywood homeless shelter.
With no more classes or tests, Jackson strapped on a backpack and hiked around Costa Rica with his then-girlfriend. It was a life-altering adventure.
''I didn't really know what poverty was,'' he said.
After that, the stepson of a professional golfer moved to South Florida to team up with Sean Cononie, the local homeless advocate. In 2003, Jackson created the Chick Grant Foundation, a nonprofit program that focused on small-scale development projects, but without the big bureaucratic oversight.
The foundation originally was named for Jackson's late grandfather, but last year he changed the name to to Planting Peace.
In addition to the deworming project, Jackson's organization boasts of building homes and orphanages in Ecuador and Guatemala.
Today, Jackson coordinates his projects from a cluttered corner desk on the second floor of a busy Hollywood homeless shelter, the Cosac Quarters Hotel for the Poor.
''I always consider Aaron my hero because he gets in there and does what others won't do,'' said Cononie, director and founder of the Cosac Foundation, the nonprofit group that runs the shelter. ``It means a lot, the work he does.''
Since the founding, most donations have gone through Cononie's homeless nonprofit organization. Jackson said he has applied for Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service and is awaiting approval.
It's easy to see why Jackson has adopted deworming in Haiti as a cause.
About 80 percent of Haiti's eight million people carry at least some form of parasite, said Claude Good, founder of The Worm Project, a nonprofit program that aims to curb hunger through parasite removal. Good reached that figure based on studies he has read on countries with high infection rates yet with less poverty than Haiti.
Parasites can enter the intestine through the mouth from uncooked or unwashed food, contaminated water or by skin contact with larva-infected soil.
Infected people often suffer from general malaise and the immune system weakens, inviting further illnesses, Good said. Healthy people are less susceptible to infection.
Good, who learned about the worm problem in the mountains of Mexico as a missionary, is familiar with Jackson's work. Good supplied Jackson with 20,000 deworming pills to distribute.
'I CAN DO IT'
'When I suggested that we can do the whole country, he said, 'I can do it,' '' Good said from his home in Lansdale, Pa. "That got the ball rolling.''
Jackson's work has not gone unnoticed.
He's among three dozen ''Heroes,'' a collection of people from around the world whom CNN is recognizing for their selfless projects.
On Monday, the network kicks off an online poll. The top vote-getter wins $25,000 and will be honored by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper in New York on Dec. 6.
If he gets the $25,000, Jackson plans to purchase the worm-fighting pills and hand them out through churches and community groups.
With the help of volunteers, Jackson wants to spread the word of how to avoid catching the worms, such as by wearing shoes and washing hands with clean water.
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