Jahkil Jackson is on a noble mission.
By the end of 2020, the Chicago seventh grader wants to pack and distribute 15,000 blessing bags to people who are homeless. That will bring him to a grand total of 50,000 blessing bags since 2016, when he first started his project, inspired by a trip to Lower Wacker Drive with his great-aunt, who drove around handing out chili and soup to people sheltering below the city’s gleam and bustle.
“That sparked something in him,” Na-Tae Jackson, Jahkil’s mom, told me in 2017. “He would literally tear up when he would see someone who was homeless, trying to understand how that person got into that situation.”
Jahkil started packing bags of socks, toiletries and snacks to keep in his parents’ car and hand out to people in need.
“He yells at us if we don’t,” Na-Tae Jackson said at the time.
“I also yell at them if they do,” Jahkil added. “I yell, ‘Pull over! We have to give them a bag!'”
He gave out 3,000 bags that first year. He won a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes award. With the help of his parents and his grandmother, Phyllis Smith, he launched a nonprofit called Project I Am (officialprojectiam.com).
Barack Obama tweeted about him. Marvel turned him a superhero with his own comic book, “Make Way for Jahkil.” CNN named him a 2019 Young Wonder.
He’s given out blessing bags in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Puerto Rico.
His heart and his energy know no bounds.
In early March, when the coronavirus news was swirling but life was, for the most part, still normal – schools were still in session, businesses were still going full force, “social distancing” was a phrase we heard in passing, not a mandate we lived by – Jahkil hosted a rollerskating party at The Rink on 87th Street. It was a celebration of four years of blessing bags. He asked everyone to bring items to donate. Two hundred people came bearing supplies.
His mom put most of them in storage.
Two weeks after the party, Jahkil would find himself home from school, e-learning indefinitely, and mostly stuck inside.
“I have asthma, so my parents want me in the house as much as possible,” he told me Monday. “I walk my dog down the block, but that’s about it.
“I always wanted to be homeschooled,” he added, “but not like this.”
In his downtime, Jahkil is packing blessing bags by the dozens. He estimates he’s made 250 in the past month. And because of the supplies that his friends brought to the skating party, he and his parents haven’t had to venture out to their usual list of dollar stores and other suppliers. They even have a few bottles of liquid gold, aka mini hand sanitizer, which Jahkil is happily including in the bags.
Jahkil and his dad, Jamiel Jackson, delivered a box of blessing bags to an assisted living facility a few weeks ago, but Jahkil wasn’t allowed past the front steps, for safety reasons. Smith, Jahkil’s grandmother, is taking bunches of Jahkil’s bags and dropping them at homeless shelters around the city. Jahkil is stockpiling some of them at home to distribute himself, when it’s safe.
I asked him if he misses interacting with the people he’s helping.
“That’s really tough,” he said. “Seeing people happy makes me happy. So not being able to talk to people and get their reactions is really sad. But I’m pushing through.”
He has that 15,000 finish line to reach.
Jahkil has a motto: “Don’t wait to be great.” It’s on T-shirts and sweatshirts and pillows that are for sale on his Project I Am site. The proceeds go toward blessing bag supplies. He has a GoFundMe too.
May 5 is Giving Tuesday. Jahkil is on the kid board of directors for the day. He was hoping to host a giant blessing bag-making party. He might try to do one over Zoom, but he told me he’s wary of asking people to go out to stores and buy the supplies. He’s not sure it’s safe.
“Now his message is, ‘Hey, kids, do something great on this day,'” Na-Tae Jackson said. “Whatever their act of kindness is – making masks or writing letters to their community – he’s urging kids to do it that day.”
And the youth shall lead us.
“I think it’s important to do things that inspire others,” Jahkil said. “It will cause a chain effect if one person inspires another person and that person can go inspire other people. I think that’s very important, especially at this time.”