Young, Black, gay and homeless, TyRon Jackson used to think he didn’t matter. Now his work speaks for itself
When TyRon Jackson graduated from Tustin High School 20 years ago, he was the featured singer at graduation. He sang Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.”
His former classmate Macie Manns said she always thought of Jackson as very popular and positive. Another former classmate Letitia Clark, now Tustin’s Mayor Pro Tem, remembers him as caring and talented.
What he didn’t tell any of his fellow students at the time was that he and his family were homeless and living in a motel. It was the second time they were homeless — the previous time was when he was in grade school.
Only a couple teachers knew about his situation. When the school choir went on a trip to Vegas, his choir teacher paid for him so he could go.
Many of his classmates also didn’t know about the bullying he faced. One afternoon, as he was walking from his Santa Ana motel room to the Market Place in Tustin for his job at Rubio’s, a group of young, white high school kids beat him up, calling him racial and homophobic slurs. They threatened to kill him the next time they saw him.
He made it to work, and his shift lasted until almost midnight. Scared of running into his bullies again, he tried to navigate a different route home in the middle of the night.
The oldest of five kids, when he got back to the hotel room, everyone was already in bed. He cried quietly until he fell asleep.
“We have interactions with people every day at the grocery store, at restaurants and coffee shops, but do you really know what people are going through?” Jackson said. “What are they going home to? Do they live in a car? Do they live in an abusive house? Are they living in a motel? Are they hurting?”
“That’s why I do what I do every day. People are hurting daily, struggling daily. We all fall down, but it’s the getting up that matters.”
Jackson works with special-needs students as a behavior interventionist at the Tustin Unified School District. Outside of his day job, his passion is his organization Operation Warm Wishes (OWW), which he started in 2008.
Before the pandemic, his schedule involved going to work from about 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., and then afterward, serving homeless people, youth, families, veterans and senior citizens in need until about 9 p.m. at night.
He named his organization Operation Warm Wishes because he’s always been fascinated with the military.
“I love that they help everyone, and like doctors, they don’t turn anyone away,” he said. “I wanted to be that organization where our operation was to provide warm wishes and love, regardless of who you are or where you are in life.”
OWW has only been an official nonprofit for about four years, but before he had volunteers and donations, Jackson did the work himself.
He would go to a homeless encampment, drop off empty bags on Friday and tell people that he would be back on Saturday morning to pick up clothes if anyone needed their laundry done.
“It was me loading up my little car and washing clothes so they didn’t have to wear the same T-shirts and dirty socks,” he said. “Recently, when I was delivering groceries to an organization, an elderly lady remembered me from the Santa Ana Civic Center [homeless camp] when I first started bringing them food, and she said they were all wondering, ‘Why is this guy being so nice? What does he want?’”
“I didn’t want anything,” he said.
Al Murray, a former Tustin mayor who now serves on the board of directors of the Orange County Transportation Authority, has known Jackson for about 13 years.
Recently, at the urging of Murray, county Supervisor Don Wagner highlighted Jackson as part of their spotlight on local heroes.
“He’s really loved by the community,” said Murray, who, along with former Tustin Councilman Doug Davert, helped Jackson apply to be an official nonprofit. “He’s selfless, and he’s been doing this work for a really long time.”
Murray also donated the van that is now the OWW van. Painted on the vehicle is Jackson’s personal cellphone number. That’s how accessible he wants to be to anyone who needs his help.
One of the reasons Jackson started his organization back in 2008 was because as a relatively unknown Black gay man, he saw that many didn’t trust him.
He understood that when white athletes came to town and did the same kind of community service, they would be written up in the press as a hero.
At the same time, he experienced people offering to volunteer or donate cases of water, but backing out last minute after they read about him and learned that he was gay. He knew that when he told certain people that he believed God loves all his children, they saw him as a sinner.
He realized he couldn’t be slowed down by volunteers flaking out due to homophobia. He needed to do the work himself.
In 2010, he entered the very first Mr. Gay Orange County pageant and won.
“I treated my time as a pageant winner as if I had won for political office,” he said with a laugh.
He used it as an opportunity to speak about how to help the homeless, youth and LGBTQ population.
To get students involved in his organization, Jackson started the Operation Warm Wishes Make It Happen club. Often, he said, it’s the first time these student volunteers have done laundry or talked to a homeless person, and it changes their lives as much as it does the people they are helping.
When the pandemic hit, Jackson saw, through his job at the Tustin School District, students living in cars and families that needed food.
Jackson is proud that, other than now needing to provide homeless people with masks, he hasn’t had to pivot too much during the coronavirus crisis.
He’s already been serving the community every day for over a decade. And he’s able to go above and beyond, because he understands some of the issues that might lead a family to become homeless.
He explains that many organizations provide hotel vouchers for families in need. But when he reaches out to support them, he gives them rules.
“There’s a curfew, no drugs or alcohol allowed, and the kids under 13 need to be in bed by a certain time,” he said. “They also have to check in three times a day to make sure we’re working on structure and communication.”
He wants to help families build a solid foundation, so after he helps them through this rough patch, they can be better equipped to succeed.
Jackson said the news of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police hit him “in a way that’s never ever hit me before.”
“We were already in the middle of a pandemic, people losing their jobs, and I felt like we were going to grow together and heal together in order to get through the coronavirus,” he said. “And then to see the [George Floyd] incident … and to see that some people thought it was OK, because ‘he was just a bad guy.’ It really hurt me.”
He helped organize and emcee a protest in Tustin on June 6.
“I told everyone to turn to the left and turn to the right, and tell the people next to you that ‘You matter,’” he said. “And if someone was sitting next to a Black person or a gay person or a trans person, they were able to tell them that they matter.
“I believe that all lives matter, I really do … But for a long time, people of color felt like they didn’t matter. I felt like I didn’t matter.”
But now he knows better. If he didn’t understand his worth and impact, he wouldn’t be going out every day and putting himself at risk to deliver food and supplies to anyone who needs help.
Sometimes he feels frustrated that he doesn’t get as much attention as other people or organizations that haven’t been doing this as long as he has.
But then he catches himself.
Recently, he came across a mother and her five kids that were living in their car. The oldest was a senior in high school.
“He had the same look in his eye that I had,” he said. “The look of ‘I’m tired. There are a lot of things on my shoulders right now.’ And I saw myself.”
Now he’s able to help homeless families who live in the same motels he and his family used to live in.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do in the last 12 years; imagine what I can do in the next 12 years,” he said, adding that he’d love to one day have his own building where he can house the homeless.
“Everything he does is with a purpose,” Manns said. “If he’s able to find a way to help someone, he’s going to do it. He really puts everything into it.”
“What he’s done in our community is nothing short of amazing,” Clark said. “The people in our community remember him from back in the day and have grown to love and respect him. His involvement with Operation Warm Wishes is the best example of our deep community connection in Tustin and why we are a unique place in Orange County ripe for dynamic change and transformative leadership.”
For more information or to donate, visit operationwarmwishes.com. It’s an all-volunteer organization, and the funds go directly to those in need.
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