Healing Haiti

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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.

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Michael J. Mooney