"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.