Five years ago, Jon Jackson was a 12 year old passenger in his mother’s car when he looked out the window and saw something he had never seen before. It was a homeless man, lying in a fetal position under a bridge. The image left an indelible impression.
“I had heard of homelessness, but I had never seen it,” he said. On this bitter cold, January day in Pittsburgh Jon knew it wouldn’t be the last time either.
Answering the Call
My first thought was, ‘How can I help him?’ My mom and I talked about it and came up with a plan to collect 500 blankets to give to the homeless. I contacted several businesses in my hometown of Mars, PA and they allowed me to put up posters and place boxes for the collection,“ he said.
The community generously answered the call to help.
“The house we were living in at the time had a room next to mine and it was almost filled up to the ceiling with donated blankets.” he remarked. Jon and his mother, Kelly, had their next challenge – how to get the 800 warm blankets collected into the hands of those who needed them.
He explained, “That year, we got a commercial van and stuffed it with as many blankets as we could and headed to Pittsburgh’s North Side, under a bridge. The first blanket I gave was very heartwarming. I had never experienced such gratitude as I did in that moment. We learned from a homeless person where more people could be found in the city and then headed there.”
Dedicated to the Cause
Jon’s thought – How can I help? – became more than a goal. It became a mission. And the mission took on the Pittsburgh inspired name, “Keep Yinz Warm”.
Today, the Mars Area High School honor student spends 40-50 hours a week dedicated to the cause collecting blankets, hats, coats and scarves; maintaining a website and Facebook page; and distributing donated items.
He has every Thursday off at McGinnis Sisters, where he works 35 hours a week, so that he can deliver warmth to those in need. Sometimes his friends go along with him. “During the winter, we go maybe two times a week to see hundreds of people. They all know each other and tend to stay in large groups. They’ve grown to trust us.
The interactions have taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I never knew when I was 12 that there were homeless people, but after 5 years I realize there are many. They’ve fallen on hard times. Anybody can end up homeless,” Jon said.
The Reward of Giving
With support from the community, including businesses, churches, Girl Scout troops and more, “Keep Yinz Warm” has so far delivered over 10,000 blankets – 3,000 just this year.
For his efforts, Jon has earned several awards including the Jefferson Award. While he’s honored to receive them, his reward comes every time he hands someone a blanket or a pair of gloves and receives a smile. He said the experience has made his life richer and his relationship with his mom, who is by his side, stronger.
In the fall, he will head to college to become either a history teacher or a neuro scientist. It’s his goal that “Keep Yinz Warm” will continue and become a national program.
He commented, “Instead of walking by a homeless person, instead of judging – step up to help. That person you help will know they matter and might just believe, ‘I can be more than I am right now.’ All it takes is one person to show compassion.