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Rainn Wilson points at a gigantic pink worm walking in his direction. Yes, Dwight Schrute from television's The Office. And yes, a seven-foot-tall, star-shaped parasite, with arms and legs, is walking toward the small stage where Wilson stands.
"Wait a minute," Wilson says to the crowd seated in an ivy-lined second-story courtyard at the W Hotel, on the edge of Beverly Hills. "It seems to be an actual intestinal parasite."
The audience laughs. It's a cool mid-December afternoon. Wilson continues, "What can you possibly have to say for yourself, mister?"
"Gimme this!" the guy in the worm costume says in an exaggerated New York accent. A cartoonish grin is plastered on the worm's face, and toilet paper taped on looks like feces. "It's a party! Hey! Parasites gotta live too, OK?"
"Get off the stage, buddy," Wilson orders as he grabs the microphone stand from the giant talking worm. When the creature rebuts, Wilson drops the mike and pushes the worm against the stone wall behind the stage. He slaps the parasite's pointy head and knees him in the foamy groin. Then he turns the worm around with a headlock and takes him down to the ground.
As they jostle, the afternoon crowd of well-dressed TV and movie stars cheers. Wilson calls out, "Aaron! Come up here!"
Seated at a table just left of the stage, Aaron Jackson looks out of place. The rail-thin, scruffy 27-year-old from Broward County wears an oversize T-shirt, baggy jeans, and Pumas. He looks like he belongs on a Frisbee golf course — certainly not at this swanky L.A. party.
Wilson kicks and punches the worm as Aaron approaches the stage. Jenna Fischer — Pam from The Office — is laughing and clapping. Legendary metal guitarist Slash smirks and nods, his mirrored sunglasses still over his eyes. Everyone hoots, cheering Aaron on. Wilson holds the worm's starfishy arm, and Aaron launches himself into the parasite's plump gut.
When Aaron gets off the worm, Wilson goes back to the microphone. "You're done here, joker," he tells the parasite. "Boooo!"
The audience starts booing along, and the worm limps toward the door — past the cast of The Office, past the stars of Reno 911! and Heroes, past Slash and Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire.
Aaron makes his way back to his seat, but before he can sit down, the crowd stands to applaud. Some folks go over and hug the young man.
This event, called Cure a Country, is a fundraising party conceived and organized by Rainn Wilson. The idea is to raise enough money in a single day to help Aaron with a goal he has: to rid all 10 million people in Haiti of intestinal parasites — to cure the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Exactly how this shaggy, disheveled, community-college dropout ended up bringing the cause célèbre to a posh party full of Hollywood stars is a tale of saint-like deliverance and self-sacrifice — with a touch of serendipity.
Aaron Jackson doesn't sleep. Yes, that's an exaggeration, but just barely. When he's in the United States, Aaron is a ceaseless geyser of emails, phone calls, and text messages. He starts around 10 a.m. and continues far into the next morning.
When he does happen to nod off these days, it's on an old mattress in the corner of an $800-a-month microstudio apartment in Hollywood, Florida. The place doubles as the central office for his nonprofit organization, Planting Peace. Through this ever-expanding international aid organization, Aaron has opened orphanages and shelters in Ecuador, Guatemala, Cambodia, and all across Haiti, where his work began. He has initiated efforts to conserve the Amazon rain forest, planted trees on depleted Haitian hillsides, and organized environmental cleanup programs across the United States.
The project that draws the lion's share of his time, however, and the issue to which Aaron has brought the most awareness, is intestinal parasites. The worms cause those bloated, distended bellies associated with Third-World countries where there's no access to clean water. The parasites absorb up to 20 percent of a child's nutritional intake and, if left unchecked, cause brain damage, crippling physical handicaps, and eventually death.
Aaron has avoided the traditional foreign-aid routes such as the Red Cross. Instead, he began five years ago by bringing deworming pills to Haiti in his backpack. Since then, he has distributed more than 3.5 million treatments, which cost about two cents each in bulk, and he has done it all without a single government grant.
Ordinarily, as he's traveling through the most impecunious countries in the world, he has few requirements about where he'll sleep. Mostly, he tries to sleep near fans. "To a mosquito, a little fan is like a gigantic hurricane," he's fond of saying.
The mendicant lifestyle is a long way from how he grew up, living on a golf course in the quiet panhandle town of Destin, Florida. His stepfather was a golf pro, and young Aaron's life was all about hitting the links.
While taking classes at a community college, Aaron had an urge to get away from the sheltered life. On a trip to Costa Rica, Aaron witnessed real poverty, children living in squalor, infants so malnourished in the womb that they were born with deformed, weakened limbs.