Healing Haiti

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.

When he got back, he looked for "a job where I could really help people." He found one with Sean Cononie, who runs the Homeless Voice shelter on Federal Highway in Hollywood.

He first went to Haiti with Cononie in 2004. It was then when he decided to start his first orphanage with a Haitian man he had befriended. Aaron got a job as a caddy on a Miami Beach golf course and sent the money he earned to keep the orphanage going. Soon, he felt like the money he was spending on rent should be going to Haiti too, so he gave up his apartment and started sleeping on the floor of Cononie's office.

Not until 2008, when he returned from a trip to Cambodia, did Aaron move into his tiny apartment/office near the beach in Hollywood.

His one-man charity was gaining momentum. After a New Times cover story in July 2005 ("Saint Aaron," Eric Alan Barton), Aaron was featured in CNN's Heroes project in September 2007. He appeared on Larry King Live, talking about deworming, and a short documentary on CNN.com chronicled his campaign.

"When you meet these kids, when they have a belly full of worms, they're lethargic, they're in like a daze you can see," Aaron says. "Their eyes glaze over. And their bellies are swollen, and they're just sick all the time."

Within a day, the pills begin working and the children pass the worms. "You can see the children come to life. They start running around again and playing — like kids are supposed to. It's unbelievable how much difference it makes, for less than two cents. I tell people for the price of a cup of coffee, you can deworm an entire school."

People connected with Aaron's story. They saw the CNN videos of sick children and this pale, scraggly white kid walking the streets of Port-au-Prince, handing out medicine from his backpack. Donations, sometimes as much as $20,000 a day, poured in.

By the end of 2008, Aaron had distributed more than 3.5 million doses of deworming medication worldwide, with pills going to Sudan, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

With more money coming in — the charity brought in $1,175,608 in 2008, according to tax records — Planting Peace was able to do more. The organization sponsors a homeless outreach center in Guatemala, a home for teenage prostitutes in Ecuador, and four programs in Haiti, including a home for children with AIDS in Port-au-Prince's gritty Cité Soleil.

As a strict rule, Aaron does not apply for government grant money. For that, he'd need to follow a slow application process full of long, detailed descriptions of his plan. Then he'd need to follow it up with regular updates, receipts, and verification.

That's not Aaron Jackson's style. Aaron isn't a planner — he takes the money donated to him and finds a quick, efficient way to help the people and places that need it most.

Last year, Aaron traveled to Cambodia with a friend from his high school golf team. He says he went because "I'd heard about a lot of problems with children involved in the sex trade and wanted to see how we could help."

They flew into Thailand because the plane ticket was about $3,000 cheaper and then took a bus over the border to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. One of the cities along the way — about three days on the bus from Thailand — is Sihanoukville, a coastal town known for tourism. They checked into an inexpensive hotel, and as his friend relaxed for a minute in the room, Aaron went out for a bite. The woman serving him lunch told him about the "tree people" — people who live outside, under the trees of the beautiful beach town.

"Most of the street people there were amputees, hurt by land mines," Aaron says. "Cambodia has a huge land mine problem. People lose limbs all the time. These people were homeless and basically had their children go out to the beaches and beg the tourists for money for food. But this is monsoon season, and there are no tourists."

Aaron approached the street people and, mostly gesturing with his hands, tried to figure out how he could help them. A big group gathered around to see this American trying to talk with his hands.

"A kid who spoke English finally started translating, and another kid said his family had a house with eight rooms, basically an eight-bedroom hotel, they would rent for one dollar per room for each day. Within one hour of talking to them, all these tree people had housing. I cut a check for the entire year; it came to something like $2,900. That included $50 extra, like a tip for making it happen so fast."

A shelter, just like that. No proposal writing. No politicking. No more living on the street for eight lucky families in Sihanoukville. His friend, Matt Chambliss, stayed in Cambodia to run the shelter and start some small programs, such as getting the families access to a doctor.

That's how he has always done things — never stopping to wonder if something is possible.

"He never thinks that a vision is too big," says Andrew Crawford, a director of Food for the Hungry, one of the largest aid organizations in the world. Crawford helps get the pills Aaron has purchased through customs. "Sometimes when I work with him, I have to inject a little reality."

Five days before the Rainn Wilson event in Beverly Hills, Aaron's tiny office/apartment by the beach is ringing and clicking with excitement. Aaron now has two employees: Valerie Clark is his first full-timer, aided by a part-timer working for minimum wage.

Valerie is on one of the three computers along the wall opposite the bed. She's coordinating with directors of one of Planting Peace's newest endeavors: the Clean World Movement. "So, we're signing up people all across the country to be directors, with the idea of having one in every zip code in America," Valerie says. "The director has the freedom to start any kind of project he or she wants. So a local group went down to the beach in Dania and picked up garbage, plastic, condoms, needles, all sorts of disgusting stuff. One man is organizing a group to plant trees in Washington. We'll coordinate nationally and do things like contacting the local, small-town newspapers who love covering stuff like this."

"We can do something to effect change with the entire planet at stake," Aaron says.

A part-time employee is emailing Korean churches in America, asking for donations to buy deworming pills for North Korean children.

"I've been to South Korea," Aaron says with a stoner-esque chuckle. "They are bling-blinging. And right across this arbitrary political line, there are children starving to death. So we have somebody who can get the medication into North Korea, and we're calling these churches all over explaining what we're doing."

Valerie hands Aaron a stack of papers fresh off the printer. "Just go through each page and sign everywhere you have to," she says.

"When I pick something up in my hand, you never know where it's going to end up," Aaron says as he gestures with the papers in his hand, accidentally demonstrating. The stack of papers he's waving around happens to be his application for a nonprofit license to solicit donations in California. "This is why I need people around me who can stay extremely organized."

The application is already filled out when it comes out of the printer. Aaron has an online service take care of most of Planting Peace's paperwork, and an accountant does the nonprofit's taxes at the end of the year. Four years ago, Aaron explains, the State of Florida fined him for not having a license to solicit donations.

"Do you know who's in charge of that in Florida?" he asks. "The Department of Agriculture, of all places. I had no clue. Who would even know something like that? I didn't even know you had to have one of these things." After Aaron pleaded ignorance and paid a $10 fee, the fine was rescinded.

He bounces around the cramped office with his unsigned California application still in hand. The room is Spartan. The small refrigerator is empty; two stale whole-grain bagels comprise all the food in the apartment. A few colorful paintings dot the walls, along with a cheap surfboard Aaron bought when he tried to teach himself to surf. "I thought I could figure it out, but I just ended up getting my ass kicked by the waves," he says. On the table next to the bed stands a tiny green statue of Buddha and two books: a biography of Gandhi and a copy of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, the story of a privileged young man who gave away everything he owned and moved into the Alaskan wilderness, where he eventually died alone.

"Did you sign everywhere you were supposed to?" Valerie asks.

"Yeah, I think so," Aaron replies after flipping through a few pages while on the phone.

"Did you double-check?" she asks.

"Um, no. Not really."

Sure enough, one of the last pages in the application is missing Aaron's signature.

"She's good," Aaron says. "Valerie also handles all the thank-you notes. It turns out when people send you money, they like it if you write them a letter once in a while to say hi. Who knew?"

Over his bed is a bulletin board loaded with various letters he has received. One is a small note on purple stationery. It's from an elementary school student who sent Aaron a donation. "She may have raised like three dollars or something," he says as he examines the note. "But I'm definitely going to write her back. She just saved 150 children. Kids respond to things like that."

Below that note is a letter from Gov. Charlie Crist, personally thanking Aaron for everything he has done fighting hunger and helping the environment. "I don't really care as much about these kinds of things," he says. "I know that sounds bad, but that's how it is."

Next to Crist's letter, Aaron has tacked up an unfolded napkin covered in red numbers. "This is my version of a spreadsheet," he says with a smile. The numbers on the napkin represent Planting Peace's monthly budget. Lines of addition and subtraction are scrawled in every direction. "Each one of those 700s is one orphanage," he says. There are five. "When you're responsible for a bunch of orphans — these are like my kids, ya know? — you damned well better know where the money's coming from."

Above the door to the bathroom hangs a dry-erase board with a calendar drawn on it. "This is something new I'm trying," he says. "We have to bring in an average of $170 every day just to break even. That's before the deworming, before the deforestation, before everything. It's $170 a day just for the food and to run the shelters." On each day, Aaron has written a number: 20, 70, 250, 0, 10 — money has slowed since the early CNN days. Donations made via PayPal.com are written in blue, checks in green, and everything else in red. "I've really never had to worry about the money side of things before," Aaron says. "If we wanted to do something to help someone, like building a new school or something, we just did it. Somehow the money was just there. I promise I don't even have a clue about how it worked. And I've only been doing this for, what, four and a half years?"

Now he's in the unusual position of manager, and it seems every venture he has started now needs more of everything. He has been thrust into the uncomfortable position of fundraising. "I'm just an idea guy," he says. "I don't know anything about raising money."

But if Aaron is making a transition from charity boy into philanthropy man, he's about to have his bar mitzvah.

The route to the W Hotel is marked by ten-story pictures of P. Diddy drinking vodka and Bel-Air mansions so large that even the Fresh Prince would have thought them rare. Larry King is sending a producer to cover the Rainn Wilson event, so Aaron arrives at 11 a.m., two hours before the party will begin.

Aaron and Wilson had emailed dozens of times discussing details of the party, but the two had never met. When they see each other in studio number three on the second story of the W Hotel, Wilson drops his bag and gives Aaron a bear hug, lifting him off the ground. Wilson wears a tie with a black vest, a long black jacket, black jeans, and Chuck Taylor Converse shoes. Aaron wears jeans and a T-shirt that reads: "30,000 Kids Die of Hunger Every Day."

Once he catches his breath, Aaron introduces his 15-year-old brother, Will. Wilson introduces his wife, author Holiday Reinhorn. They chat about women's education around the world. Aaron explains how people running orphanages in Haiti often steal the aid money, leaving the children homeless and starving.

The décor includes bright-purple sunflowers that rest on each table, and large paintings of the faces of Haitian girls and boys sit on easels.

This party is all Rainn Wilson's idea.

He was in his trailer on the set of The Office, in the San Fernando Valley, battling to get a wi-fi signal. When his computer pulled up the CNN.com homepage, the featured story that day was about Aaron.

"Aaron's story really struck a chord with me," says Wilson, who is a member of the Baha'i faith, which stresses unity across humanity. He speaks with compassion, wholly unlike the characters he has played on The Office or in Juno. "The thought that this child of privilege, this kid who literally grew up right in the middle of a golf course, would give up everything he had and dedicate his life to helping people, that really resonated."

Wilson quickly fired off an email to Aaron telling him what great work he was doing, adding at the bottom: "By the way, I play Dwight on the TV show The Office. If there's anything I can do to help you out, let me know."

Aaron doesn't watch much television, so he wasn't sure what to make of Wilson's email. But after a few seconds with Google, he recognized the opportunity.

"First Aaron would send me these emails," Wilson says. "He'd say, 'OK, how about you dress up like Dwight and go out to the streets and try to sign people up to donate like $100 each?' Or 'Why don't you dress up like a homeless person and go knocking door to door around Beverly Hills?'"

Wilson suggested a party instead. "I wanted to make this a big event to raise the money for Aaron, for the people of Haiti," he says, "but I also want to establish a West Coast presence for Planting Peace."

As the luncheon's official start time nears, Wilson says he isn't nervous, "but it's so hard to get people in L.A. to come out to a charity event. We've had more than 100 RSVPs, but when Sunday morning comes and you have to get out of bed and get dressed and drive down to the hotel, we'll be happy if we get 70."

Before Larry King's folks arrive, Wilson goes into another room with his assistant, Adam Mondschein. There they rehearse the worm skit. Mondschein explains that the most worm-like costume he could rent was Patrick the Starfish from SpongeBob SquarePants. "We need it to look like feces," Wilson says. "What looks like feces?"

He practices slapping the head and delivering a realistic knee to the groin. They decide to remove Patrick's pants and cover the costume with black electrical tape and twisted toilet paper.

It's an uncharacteristically cool Southern California day. Every table on the terrace is full, and more people stand near the doors. Wilson takes the mike and welcomes his friends. He tells Aaron's backstory and explains how he came across Planting Peace. Then, with the same clever wit his fans are accustomed to seeing every week, Wilson stuns the crowd.

"Let's just say I know what it's like to have worms coming out of my butthole," he tells the audience. Plenty of people think the actor is probably joking. He isn't. Turns out that when Wilson was a child, his parents moved the family to Nicaragua, where he drank contaminated water and got an intestinal parasite himself. It was treated before he got terribly ill, but he says it was certainly uncomfortable — "not something a child should be going through."

The crowd is filled with familiar TV and film stars, who sip bottles of Voss water and eat plates of lemon chicken, ziti, and Greek salad. Several members of the cast of The Office are here: Jenna Fischer, Creed Bratton, Oscar Nuñez. Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon from Reno 911! show up, as does Jimmy Jean-Louis, who plays "The Haitian" on Heroes. Slash and his wife are both enthralled by Aaron. The lead singer of Arcade Fire, Win Butler, whose wife's family moved to Canada from Haiti, performs solo for the first time in his career. Playing an acoustic guitar made completely of steel and singing partly through a megaphone, he covers the David Bowie tune "Heroes." "We could be heroes" — he belts through the crisp afternoon — "just for one day."

After Wilson's introduction, Aaron stands up and gives an impassioned speech about his first trip to Haiti, when he learned that these sweet children he had come to care so much about in such a short time had bellies full of worms that were eating a lot of their food. He talks about a mother asking him to take her child and another asking him if he had the money to rid her toddler of parasites. He gave away every penny he had on him before hitchhiking to the airport to fly home to Florida. By the end of his story, more than half the audience members have tears in their eyes.

The guests begin dropping off donation checks they've sealed in envelopes. Someone asks Will, Aaron's brother: "If your brother is a living saint now, what was he like as a kid?"

The teenager smiles. "We never saw him," Will says. "He was always out with his friends, and when he was home, he was normally in his room with a girl."

As the party winds down, Wilson and Aaron cut away from the pockets of conversation, getting a chance to chat together. Talk turns to Aaron's travels. He says he's leaving for Bluefields, Nicaragua, in a few weeks to look into coral reef conservation. That's exactly where Wilson was living when he contracted the parasite.

Wilson mentions that, if they'd be interested, Aaron and his brother can come to the set of The Office on Monday and hang out in his trailer. They can also watch them shoot the episode that will air after the Super Bowl.

Aaron, who never likes to plan, is hesitant to commit. Will is all but kicking Aaron in the shin before big brother finally accepts the invitation. Will immediately begins text-messaging his friends.

On the way back to his hotel from the W, Aaron's voice is gone. His throat is sore, his eyes are red, and he is shivering. Plenty of people wore wool sweaters to the luncheon while Aaron stood shaking in his T-shirt for hours. And he was so busy talking to people at the party that he never got a chance to eat.

Over a dinner of cheese cubes and crackers in the hotel concierge lounge that night, Aaron is pale and strains to talk. He doesn't like to think about it, but there are some serious drawbacks to his lifestyle. His health is one. Relationships are another.

"Even the most understanding girl in the world wants to be taken to the movies once or twice," Aaron says. "But I can't really do that. I don't have any money at all. And it's pretty hard to text someone 'I love you' from the middle of a field in Haiti."

He's also never too sure where his next meals might come from. But he doesn't worry much about that. "It somehow just works out," he says. For example, one day recently, Aaron had no food in his apartment. But just as his stomach was aching from hunger, he got a donation in the mail: organic cereals and whole grains. "I can't explain it; it's like I'll look around and it's a mini-famine up in the apartment. And then out of nowhere, somebody donates something. We can't exactly take a single box of cereal over to Haiti, so I don't feel bad about eating."

When he's not traveling the globe, he's making calls or shooting off emails for hours every day. If it's not deworming, it's the orphanages or the shelters. Or saving the rain forest. Or Clean World Movement. Or, now, the coral reef.

"So many people out there want to do good things," Valerie says. "So many people want to help make the world a better place. They just need someone to lead them and tell them what needs to be done. That's why the world needs someone like Aaron."

"I believe we're citizens of the world, not of a city or a county, but of the entire world," Wilson says. "And everyone can do more, sacrifice something. I know it sounds corny, but there really is a little bit of Aaron Jackson in all of us."

Rainn Wilson's event raised about $50,000, short of the almost $200,000 required to deworm the entire nation. But the donations are still enough to buy 2.5 million treatments for children in Haiti.

Two weeks after the event, Aaron's second appearance on Larry King Live aired on CNN. Aaron hopes that, with the exposure, he'll have reached the goal of 10 million treatments. Next year, he says, he'd like to raise 28 million.

That night, Aaron Jackson went to bed at a decent hour, on the 20th floor of the Renaissance Hotel, in a comfortable bed overlooking the Hollywood hills.

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Michael J. Mooney