Jahkil Jackson is going to have a hard time topping 2017, but something tells me he’ll find a way.
The 10-year-old Chicagoan set out last year to create 5,000 blessing bags and distribute them to people who are homeless. The bags include soap, toothpaste, shampoo and other toiletries, socks and a healthy snack.
On Dec. 28, he packed his 5,000th bag. On Dec. 29, Barack Obama tweeted about him.
The former president was on an end-of-the-year hope-spreading mission, tweeting out a collection of stories from 2017 that “remind us what’s best about America.” Jahkil and his blessing bags made the list.
“I was asleep in my room because I was tired and I didn’t have anywhere to go, and my mom woke me up and yelled at me, ‘Barack Obama just tweeted about you!’” Jahkil told me Tuesday. “She just went on Facebook or something and saw that he tweeted about me.”
“I don’t have Twitter,” Jahkil’s mom, Na-Tae Jackson, said. “Someone sent me a screenshot saying, ‘President Obama just tweeted about Jahkil from his personal account.’ I was like, ‘What?’”
So was I.
Those of you who read my columns with any sort of regularity know I’m fiercely loyal to Chicago and want the whole of our story told. Not just the violence, which is real and gut-wrenching. Not just the cash-strapped public schools, which are, indeed, cash-strapped. Not just the lives lost, which are far, far too many.
Those parts of our story deserve — indeed, need — our attention. But we can’t understand those parts, we can’t fully care about those parts, when we don’t know what’s at stake. When we don’t learn the rest of the story. The teachers and artists and entrepreneurs and activists and authors and police officers and architects and children — oh, man, the children — who work and learn and grow here. Who make sense of it. Who make it beautiful.
Who make it better.
To see a former president of the United States grab hold of Jahkil’s story and send it out to the world was to see someone look to Chicago for what’s best about America.
And find it.
After Jahkil packed his 5,000th blessing bag, he and his mom drove a bundle of them to Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter on South Canal Street. Often they distribute the bags at shelters; other times they hand them out individually when they encounter a man or woman on the street. Jahkil’s parents keep blessing bags in their car at all times.
“He yells at us if we don’t,” his mom told me in September, when I first wrote about Jahkil.
“I also yell at them if they do,” Jahkil said. “I yell, ‘Pull over! We have to give them a bag!’”
Jahkil’s great-aunt brought him to Lower Wacker Drive to hand out chili and soup to the people camped out there when Jahkil was 5 years old. He’s been determined to help as many people as he can ever since.
“That sparked something in him,” Na-Tae Jackson said. “He would literally tear up when he would see someone who was homeless, trying to understand how that person got into that situation.”
She and her husband, Jamiel, and her mother, Phyllis Smith, helped him establish Project I Am, a nonprofit through which he collects money and organizes events to create and distribute blessing bags.
Jahkil also serves as a youth ambassador for Heartland Alliance, an international organization that works to alleviate poverty, and he sits on the youth council for WE, a nonprofit that encourages young people to serve their communities through volunteer work.
In September, he won a 2017 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a national award that goes to 25 young people making a positive difference in the world. The honor came with $5,000 to put toward the recipient’s chosen cause, and Jahkil put his toward more blessing bags.
When he reached his goal of 5,000 bags, a Project I Am publicist contacted the Obama Foundation to share Jahkil’s story. The group shared it some more — both in an Obama Foundation e-blast and a personal tweet from the former president.
Jahkil is just getting started. He wants to distribute 6,000 blessing bags in 2018, and he wants to help kids in other cities create them, as well. He and his parents have established blessing bag starter kits that they’ll send to schools and individuals who’ve contacted them through the Project I Am website.
He also wants to get a tiny house movement going in Chicago, similar to one in Detroit, in which social service agencies build small houses (300 square feet or so) for people who are homeless.
In Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press, organizations and businesses donate money to build the houses — General Motors donated $135,000 to build three — and then residents pay a small amount of rent each month, attend homeownership classes and complete monthly community service hours.
“I want to build one with my bare hands,” Jahkil told me. “I want to see how that feels.”
Jahkil’s mom said she’s planning to contact Habitat for Humanity to see if it can help her family learn more about the logistics of starting a tiny house movement here.
“That’s going to be an interesting goal for the year,” she said with a laugh. “But, you know, it’s heartfelt. I’m not going to limit anything he wants to do.”