Duluth teen 1 of 4 finalists for national humanitarian awardIn his 18 years, Duluth's Michael Jackson has been through 60 surgeries. Ask him what was hardest, though, and he’ll tell you about the two months this summer when he couldn’t talk about one of the most exciting accomplishments of his remarkable young life.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Michael Jackson was born prematurely, with bleeding on his brain. In his 18 years, he has been through 60 surgeries. When he walked across the stage to accept his diploma at Duluth East High School this year, it was the first time most of his classmates had seen him out of his wheelchair.
In short, Jackson has had his challenges.
Ask him what was hardest, though, and he’ll tell you about the two months this summer when he couldn’t talk about one of the most exciting accomplishments of his remarkable young life.
“That was the hardest two months of my life,” Jackson said Thursday afternoon in the Lakeside home where he lives with his parents, Mick and Mary Jackson. “I couldn’t tell any of my friends.”
What Jackson learned in July but couldn’t tell his friends until September was that he had been selected as one of four national finalists for NASCAR’s Betty Jean France Humanitarian Award. The winner will be determined by votes on the NASCAR website. If Jackson wins, $100,000 will go to his favorite charity, the Starlight Children’s Foundation. As a finalist, he’s already assured the foundation will get $25,000.
Starlight has been part of Jackson’s life almost from the beginning. He was 2 months old and already diagnosed with cerebral palsy when Mick and Mary Jackson adopted him and took him home from the neonatal intensive care unit. He was the second prematurely born child the Jacksons adopted. Big sister Trisha died when she was 9½.
“We discovered that kids with special needs really are special,” Mary Jackson said.
Michael Jackson has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. That means his arms and legs are spastic, or tight. With leg supports, he can walk as far as 200 feet, but he normally uses a wheelchair. His breathing and speech are affected, and he can be difficult to understand at first. None of this fazes him.
“It might be more frustrating for other people,” Jackson said. “I understand myself just fine.”
So undaunted is Jackson that he performed a comedy routine as part of a talent show two Fridays ago at the College of St. Scholastica, where he is a first-year psychology major. He did it wearing a black hat and single white glove, a takeoff on his famous name. You can see it on You Tube by searching for “Michael Jackson’s Sit-Down Comedy.”
Susan van Druten is familiar with Jackson’s wit. An English teacher at East, she met Jackson when he was in ninth grade.
“He’s a delight, and he’s very outgoing,” van Druten said. As a ninth-grader, he had “just sort of this unsophisticated sense of humor. He developed over the years to having this lovely way with words. It shows in his writing.”
Within the past week, he had a blog titled “That’s How I Roll” published in the Huffington Post.
You can find that online as well. “I’ve only looked at it 40 or 50 times,” Mick Jackson said.
‘He’s going places’
Michael Jackson notes in his blog that he has participated in archery, sailing, kayaking, downhill skiing, wheelchair soccer and water skiing. “I can do anything anyone else can do, just in a different way,” he writes.
That’s affirmed by JoHannah Orman, a child life specialist at Essentia Health.
“He’s just one of the bravest guys I know,” Orman said. “He’s fearless. Some people in his situation would not pursue their goals and their dreams. They would sit back. That’s not Michael at all. He’s going places.”
But Jackson has gone through frequent hospitalizations along the way. That’s how Starlight Children’s Foundation came into his life. The nonprofit seeks to improve the quality of life for children and teens with chronic and/or life-threatening conditions by providing entertainment, education and family activities. It operates a website called Starbright World that allows Jackson to keep in touch with other chronically ill teens. When he was younger, he could communicate with other kids via a video link from his hospital bed.
“He used to be excited about going to the hospital and having surgery,” Mary Jackson said. “He thought it was fun to talk to other kids at other hospitals.”
Jackson didn’t just accept Starlight Foundation’s support. He gave back, setting up a website in 2006 that raised $1,700 for the foundation. When Starlight invited him to speak at its annual gala in 2007, he lobbied on behalf of Essentia Health for a Starlight Fun Center — a video game system on a cart. Essentia was awarded the Fun Center and since has added more, Orman said.
“They help normalize the environment,” Orman said. “Kids that have to be in the hospital for a period of time, they get bored.”
But Jackson’s fundraising efforts don’t end with his favorite charity. Starting with his seventh birthday, he asked his friends for Barnes & Noble gift cards so he could buy books to donate to children’s hospital libraries. He sold brownies and cookies to raise money to fight ALS and for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. He used graduation money to buy an Xbox Kinect for Essentia’s Polinsky Rehabilitation Center.
Starlight Foundation nominated Jackson for the Betty Jean France Humanitarian Award. The only requirements are that nominees be involved in a children’s charity and that they be NASCAR fans. Michael Jackson has been a NASCAR fan since he was about 4, he said, and his childhood bed was in the shape of a race car.
The finalists were chosen from among hundreds of nominees, Mary Jackson said, so all four are winners already. The $25,000 consolation prize would provide enough money to purchase five Fun Centers for hospitals.
“We’ll get $25,000 at least,” Michael Jackson agreed. “But I want more. So vote.”