The self-made
philanthropist

How a stranger’s gift and a family’s love
transformed the life of a foster child
who has changed the lives of others.

The millionaire takes the stage.

With him are the governor and lieutenant governor of Georgia, Hollywood stars Kate Bosworth and Hayden Christensen, Grammy-winning artist Michael W. Smith, Emmy-winning broadcaster Monica Pearson and thousands of fans who have packed the fabulous Fox Theatre for the world premiere of “90 Minutes in Heaven.”

“This is a special occasion,” says Rick Jackson, the entrepreneur behind Jackson Healthcare and the producer behind the film. Handsome in his striking suit, his wife Melody resplendent in a glorious blue gown beside him, he seems comfortable standing center-stage at the Moorish-style movie palace in front of the huge crowd with such prominent guests.

And why not? Renowned for his business and political acumen, Jackson once held a fundraiser for Gov. Nathan Deal at his own home, a 47,000-square-foot mansion in Cumming, and one for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the spacious Alpharetta headquarters of Jackson Healthcare. (Jackson’s family made political donations of about $50,000 to both re-election campaigns at the time, records show.) His staffing and health care consortium employs more than 1,000 people, serves more than 1,300 facilities and 7 million patients nationwide, producing around $700 million in annual revenue.

“This is a special place,” Jackson says as he lifts his eyes, aglow from the twinkling lights in the Fox’s starry-sky ceiling, to the theater’s top tiers.

Up there in the balcony, a young boy has been hiding. His mother dropped him off at the theater, leaving him to while away hours by himself. She could be the sweetest thing when sober, but most nights find her chasing her demons to the bottom of a bottle. Dinner might be a Varsity hot dog on his walk back home to their public-housing apartment, using money he earned from collecting bottles on the side of the road.

“I want to talk to you,” Jackson says. “I know the pain you are experiencing. You wonder, why is this happening? Why does nobody love me? This is not your fault. You are worthy.”

Applause fills the cavernous theater. The moment is bittersweet for Jackson. He is speaking to the foster children in the audience, who have come to the movie premiere at his invitation.

In a sense he is also directing his comments to that young boy in the balcony — his childhood self.

2.

Door to the past

Jackson’s stature in political and business circles is no secret. He is among the biggest donors in Georgia to a Super PAC supporting presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. Jackson gave $500,000 and another $550,000 from Jackson Healthcare. A signed photo of Jackson with the former Florida governor, who for a time served on the Jackson Healthcare Advisory Board, sits outside his office.

His venture into filmmaking is recent. “90 Minutes in Heaven” was the first movie created by Giving Films, one of the nonprofit ventures founded by the serial entrepreneur. He created it to produce movies with a faith-based message; profits are donated to a number of charities including FaithBridge Foster Care, whose families were the honored guests the night of the premiere.

Jackson has made headlines and faced opposition with his efforts to drive legislation to partially privatize the state’s child welfare/foster care system. Based on a plan adopted in Florida a decade ago, a bill was introduced last year that would have approved the hiring of contractors to handle adoption, foster care, family reunification and case management. As the AJC reported at the time, some child advocates voiced concerns that Jackson was using his wealth and influence to change the system without allowing adequate time to study the impact.

“There is no consensus from anyone who would be impacted in Georgia’s child welfare system that this is the right strategy to pursue,” Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University’s School of Law, said then. “The pace makes everyone anxious.”

The effort did not pass.

Jackson has alluded to his past in his drive to reform the foster care system, but has not delved fully into details. He didn’t go into specifics the night of the movie premiere.

“When I give speeches it’s easy for me to be a wimp and tear up,” he said a few days after the event. “I could not do that to those kids.”

Jackson has parceled out his personal story to those close to him in increments over the years. It’s not that he’s ashamed. He doesn’t want the attention.

“Part of the reason Rick has been reluctant to share his story is he’s just humble,” said longtime friend and business partner Larry Powell. “At one level his life doesn’t make sense. When you put it through the filter of faith, it makes all kinds of sense.”

3.

Life in the projects
Jackson, 61, grew up in Techwood Homes, a public housing project that once stood near Georgia Tech. His father left before his first birthday.

“My mom was a really nice person when she was sober,” he said. “She only got sober when she had to be.”

During stable times, his mother worked as a waitress. They were baptized together and she even got involved in his Cub Scout troop for a time. More often than not, though, they moved from one drab dwelling to another, staying one step ahead of eviction. To claim a sense of normalcy Jackson would walk to church on Sundays.

“From the time I was 6, I went to church on my own,” he said. “It was the only escape. It was like visiting another world.”

Over the years, seven different “stepfathers” came and went. Jackson isn’t sure if any of the unions were official and many of them were volatile.

“The police came to the house all the time,” he said. “Neighbors would complain about the screaming, fighting, hollering. Usually I would run away.”

Once, after staying at a friend’s place for a couple of days, Jackson came home to the sight of blue lights and bare flesh.

“The police were there,” he said. “My mom started fighting with them and she had zero clothes on. They literally dragged her out to the paddy wagon with all my friends looking. This stuff was happening routinely.”

Another time he came home to a scene out of a horror movie. Blood was splattered on the walls, the result of a fight in which his mother had broken a bottle and cut a boyfriend.

While the injured beau stumbled off to the hospital, his mother left with another man. Boyfriend No. 1 returned later, newly stitched up. Jackson, all of about 10 years old, took pity on him and offered $3 he had amassed from collecting bottles. His mother was livid when he told her later.

“She beat the crap out of me,” he said.

Once, they took a Greyhound bus to Daytona Beach with Jackson’s uncle, who had lost use of his legs due to an injury. The vacation started out well. It didn’t end that way.

“My uncle was in a wheelchair and she leaves with some guy she met on the bus,” he said. “We slept near the water. I don’t remember how we got home.”

Back in Atlanta, his mother often would drop him off at the Fox to watch a double feature, promising to return after the last show.

“About half the time she’d never show up,” he said. “She’d just leave me down there.”

To entertain himself, he would creep along the aisles in the balcony where no one could see him. Dinner was whatever he could afford at the Varsity, using money from his paper route, a grocery store job or his bottle collecting. The famous North Avenue drive-in had color TV, a real treat.

“I never actually felt like I was poor,” he said. “I felt like I was temporarily broke. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

By the time he was about 13, Jackson wanted out. He and his mother would drive to Marietta or Stone Mountain to visit relatives and when it was time to head home, she would hand the keys to her son. After one such visit he decided he’d had enough.

“My mother, for probably the 100th time, was drunk,” he said. “I told my uncle, I don’t want to go home.”

In this age of participation trophies and helicopter parenting, it’s hard to fathom a child barely in his teens marching himself into foster care. That’s pretty much what Jackson did.

His uncle, partially paralyzed and eking by on disability checks, wasn’t able to care for him. He paid for Jackson’s taxi ride to a state-run juvenile home. About 90 days later Jackson was placed with a family in the Chamblee area.

“It was fantasy land,” Jackson recalled of life in the comfortable home of the Price family, who took him to Braves games and church. “I just wanted to make sure I didn’t mess it up.”

Jackson quickly transitioned from street-smart only child to part of a family with siblings, structure and rules. He led his new brothers and sisters in games and sports, and convinced his foster parents to start a garden. His success at getting along with his new family gave early hints at the business triumphs in his future.

“He had a lot of charisma,” said foster sister B.J. Demonbreun. “He didn’t have a penny, but he always had good ideas. He knew a whole lot of street smarts. He hustled. Ricky in action is a beautiful thing to watch.”

Although he fit in well at his foster home, Jackson felt the pull of his original one. Maybe things would be different, the young teen hoped, so he went back.

For a while it seemed like the reunion might work out. But before long, his mother was newly awash in a sea of booze. Again, Jackson displayed wherewithal belying his years. He called the social worker who’d placed him with the foster family and explained his grim circumstances.

“We don’t have but one option,” she told him. “The Methodist Children’s Home.”

Dinner time at the United Methodist Children's Home in 1948. Bill Wilson/AJC/Courtesy Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

4.

Life-changing Christmas
Founded in 1871, the United Methodist Children’s Home began as a place for children orphaned during the Civil War. Originally called the Methodist Orphans’ Home, it moved from Norcross to Decatur in 1873.

In the beginning the home was its own little village, with a school and a farm to provide most of the meals. Over time the name changed, the farm ceased operation and children became part of the DeKalb County public school student body.

With its cozy cottages and faith-based environment, the children’s home was a welcome change from the chaos Jackson left at home. His entrepreneurial spirit blossomed there. He organized a Little League team and sang in a chorus.

“I was the only kind of social, outgoing confident one there,” he said.

Holidays during his childhood generally started out festive enough but quickly turned raucous. His mother wasn’t the only heavy drinker in the family, and gatherings would sometimes end with relatives shouting or even trading blows.

Christmas at the children’s home was peaceful but lonely. House parents remained on campus, but the other children he’d been living with all had somewhere to go for the holiday. No one saw him cry himself to sleep that Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning Jackson awoke knowing there would be no stack of presents to tear into, but on his bedroom floor he spotted an envelope with his name on it. Inside was a piece of currency with Benjamin Franklin’s portrait on it. An anonymous benefactor whose identity Jackson never discovered made it a habit to deliver Christmas cards stuffed with $100 bills to any child living in the Children’s Home each year.

Jackson bought himself a record player the next day, eager to spin some tunes when the other kids returned. Some came back with sports gloves and G.I. Joes, but a few came back with nothing. Jackson went shopping with the money he had left, and bought transistor radios for those who had no presents.

The experience planted the joy of giving in his heart where it continues to bloom today. Every December, each employee of Jackson Healthcare receives a Christmas card with a $100 bill tucked inside from their CEO.

5.

‘Kids deserve better’
In 2008, Jackson met Bill Hancock, whose own troubled childhood inspired his career serving foster children. Hancock had started a small nonprofit working with area churches to recruit volunteers to become foster families, and he wanted to expand the operation. To do that he needed resources.

He met with Jackson in hopes of gleaning the business sense he needed to expand his reach.

“I had an 11-slide presentation that represented my business plan,” Hancock said. “I got through slide 6 and (Jackson) said, ‘I got it.’ I closed my computer and felt the meeting was over. Rick asked me if I was in a hurry and of course my answer was no.”

The breakfast meeting stretched into lunch. The two were done talking business. Instead they talked about their pasts.

Hancock was 15 when his third stepfather decided it was time for him to strike out on his own. He dropped out of high school and worked construction and day-labor jobs until friends from church encouraged him to finish school and go on to college, helping him through graduation.

Jackson talked about life in public housing and realizing from a young age he was going to have to grow up in a hurry.

Finally Jackson asked, “How much do you have in the bank?”
Hancock’s answer: Not enough to pay his small staff, much less take a salary himself.

“Rick reached into his pocket and wrote me a check that day,” Hancock recalled. “It was good for three months of payroll.”

A few days later the two men met again. Jackson didn’t want to just be an investor. He wanted to be a partner.

“I want to see this work,” Jackson said. “Kids deserve better.”

Now called FaithBridge Foster Care, the organization operates in 20 counties and has served nearly 1,000 children. The organization trains volunteers who want to become foster parents and offers support and resources such as clothing, toys, mentoring and transportation. It also assists prospective adoptive parents navigate the blizzard of paperwork.

More than 125 children have been placed in permanent adoptive homes. Jackson is chairman of the board.

Carly and David Norwood, who have adopted a 17-month-old named Lucas and are in the process of adopting a 2-year-old, learned about FaithBridge through their church but didn’t know the full story behind the organization. The family joined dozens of other FaithBridge families the day before Halloween for a huge trick-or-treat event Jackson Healthcare hosts each year.

“My husband works in health care and he said, ‘I know Jackson Healthcare. That’s his story?’” Carly Norwood said as she kept an eye on Lucas and his older brother as they happily scooped up candy.

Tears started to stream down her face as she talked about the lives her children might have lived.

“He was going to be living in a car in a parking lot,” she said of Lucas, who was just 2 weeks when he came into the Norwoods’ lives. “The (birth) parents had no home. (The older child) was born in a bathroom in a mobile home in the north Georgia mountains.”

One day she’ll tell her sons the story of how they became a family, as a result of Jackson’s generosity. She wants them to know his story, too.

“To know that despite their beginnings they can not only build a future for themselves but act out of a heart for others,” she said, “ it gives me a lot of hope.”

Hancock also became emotional when discussing the good Jackson has done: “Every day that I get an email that another FaithBridge child is placed with a family, that 15-year-old boy in me heals a little more.”

6.

The family fold
While he was living in the children’s home, Jackson stayed in contact with his foster sister. One day she wrote to him and asked if he’d like to return to the family.

There was nothing he wanted more.

The future entrepreneur met with his former foster parents as if they were negotiating a contract.

“Ricky set up a time, they went into the library and spent hours talking,” Demonbreun recalled. “After a while you heard all this laughter. Mom and Dad never talked about what went on behind those closed doors. All I know is they got him back.”

After high school, Jackson attended David Lipscomb College, now Lipscomb University, a private Christian school in Nashville. But he could not afford to finish. Back in Atlanta he took a course at Georgia State University and used his time wisely, cultivating a relationship with Bill Franklin, who taught a class on small business.

Jackson asked Franklin for some one-on-one mentoring and tutoring. Franklin agreed.

“That’s how I got involved with him 36 years ago,” Franklin said. “I’ve been involved in every venture he’s been involved with since.”

Today Franklin is vice chairman of the Jackson Healthcare Advisory Board. From the start he could tell that despite his meager beginnings, Jackson had the smarts and personality to be successful.

“He grew up in Techwood Homes in a tiny apartment with a concrete floor and an alcoholic mother,” Franklin said. “There could be a lot of guys like that who could have bad attitudes and a bad life. There are a lot of foster kids who need to see somebody like Rick and think, some day I can be like that guy.”

Jackson’s first jobs as an adult were at UPS, JC Penney and a collection agency. His entry into the business world started in 1976, when he bought the secretarial staffing firm he’d been working for. He sold it in 1977 and pivoted into executive staffing, then health care staffing. He’s bought and sold a slew of ventures over the years and not every one was a success.

“I have failed more than any human being you’ll ever meet. You’re only seeing the businesses that survived,” Jackson said. “I think the definition of success is getting up one more time than you fall down.”

Rick and Melody Jackson on the red carpet before the premiere of “90 Minutes in Heaven” at the Fox Theatre. Melody holds the movie’s four-legged star. Jennifer Brett / jbrett@ajc.com

7.

‘God’s money’
Today Jackson has redirected much of his energy from business to what he calls venture philanthropy, applying the best practices of the boardroom to charitable endeavors.

“I’m steward of God’s money,” he said. “I’m trying to find out the best return on it for giving.”

His adult children — Shane, Chad and Dana — know the majority of his wealth will be donated to charity at his death. He takes a contemplative approach to how he can continue giving after he’s gone.

“My main prayer is wisdom on how to give away money,” he said. “Every time I pray, I pray for wisdom.”

Both sons are involved in his endeavors. Shane is president of Jackson Healthcare, and Chad heads up the Jackson Family Foundation. Dana stays busy as mom of an active 3-year-old.

Jackson’s wife, Melody Moore Jackson, is an associate professor and director of the BioInterface Research Center at Georgia Tech. She gave a riveting TEDx Atlanta talk titled “Rewiring the Brain” a few years ago. But she, too, is involved in Jackson’s missions, including the trick-or-treat extravaganza at Jackson Healthcare.

Dressed as Batman and Batgirl, the Jacksons personally greeted and coaxed a smile from each child at the party.

“Hey, sweetie,” he greeted one little sprite, who was initially too shy to reach for her bag of candy.

For some of the kids, who have known untold turmoil in their young lives, the festivities were a bit overwhelming. A little fairy princess appeared on the verge of tears. A young pro athlete kept his arms tightly folded in a protective stance.

But most of the kids had a blast. At one point, a tiny firefighter walked up to Jackson in awe and exclaimed: “You’re Batman!”

In addition to the Halloween festival, Jackson Healthcare hosts a huge Christmas gathering for foster kids. The time he spends with the children are his best and worst days, Jackson said. This week, when the grandfather of eight leads his family in a Thanksgiving prayer, he will ask for God’s grace and comfort for the kids who are without loving families.

Reflecting on the night of the movie premiere at the Fox Theatre, standing on stage among so many prominent and famous people, Jackson said he felt a kinship with those in the balcony, the foster children he had invited, whose stories he shares.

“There was a minute or so that I felt like there was no one there but them,” he said.

Several years ago, Jackson tracked down his father and discovered a sad and lonely man who would drink himself to death a year later. He reconciled with his mother, to a degree, in her final years.

“You’ll never see your grandchildren if you’re drinking,” he told her, and the warning worked. “My kids never saw her like that, never saw that mean drunk thing.”

He bought her a condo and saw to her needs until the end.

“My psychiatrist and everybody else said, ‘Why are you taking care of her?’ I said, ‘If not me, who?’”

He happened to be at the Fox Theatre seeing a show a few years ago when he was notified that she’d died.

Jackson is not bitter about his childhood. Instead he believes the street smarts he was forced to learn early set him up for success.

“When you’re that young, when you can’t trust anybody, it creates an independence like you can’t believe,” he said.

And he wants to encourage others who may be struggling through a difficult childhood of their own.

“Our earthly parents might not be good,” he said. “They might even abuse us. What I found out is my heavenly father was my parent.”

Editor's note: Information from AJC archives was used in this article.

Behind the story

Jackson and actor Hayden Christensen, star of the movie "90 Minutes in Heaven." Quantrell Colbert

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I covered the “90 Minutes in Heaven” premiere thinking it would be great to get interviews with Kate Bosworth and Hayden Christensen (both very nice, by the way). It became clear during Rick Jackson’s brief remarks that his own story rivaled the drama about to be played onscreen. Jackson said from the beginning he wasn’t seeking attention but told his story in hopes of reaching kids who are without families, without resources or without hope.

Jennifer Brett
Staff writer
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jennifer Brett is a multiplatform journalist and digital coach at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She covers celebrity sightings and filming updates associated with Atlanta’s booming film industry. This is her third Personal Journey this year. Her most recent, “Strong Survivor,” shared the story of Felicia Villegas, who did not let the unspeakable abuse and homelessness she endured as a child break her spirit. Felicia’s story recently took an exciting positive turn. Look for an update soon.


HOW YOU CAN HELP
The United Methodist Children’s Home is a licensed adoption agency that also facilitates foster care placements and helps those who have aged out of foster care transition to independent living. For information or to donate or volunteer, go to umchildrenshome.org.

FaithBridge Foster Care trains people to become foster parents, offers support and resources during the foster care placement and assists with the adoption process. For information or to donate or volunteer, go to faithbridgefostercare.org.


Jackson photographed at the Fox Theatre after an interview for the 700 club. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com