I met Jesse Howes a long, long time ago. I was a twenty-one-year-old camp counselor and Jesse was an eight-year-old camper. Jesse was a powerful kid. A leader. The type of kid – that as a counselor – you’d better have on your side or else it would be a long, hot summer. Jesse didn’t politic. Like Popeye, he was who he was and he didn’t care one bit what other people thought of him. He was 100% authentic. As a husky, strong eight-year-old boy with a crew cut and a “rattail”, Jesse was the anti-bully. He sought out the weakest, most vulnerable kids in the camp and befriended them. He then made it his business to protect his friends from anyone who mistook them for easy targets of ridicule.
Ten years later, I became the camp director and Jesse became one of my best camp counselors. Although he swapped his once fashionable crew-cut / rattail combo for a formidable set of dreadlocks, he remained the same fiercely loyal, loving, joyful warrior that he was as a kid. Jesse was magic with children. Every parent wanted their kid to be in Jesse’s group. He was fun, confident and real. Not to mention, the dude had swagger (legend has it that he owned a Ralph Lauren polo shirt in every color and over 24 pairs of sneakers to match). He talked up to kids, never down. He not only treated them like “real people,” he treated them like real friends. Kids loved Jesse. They gravitated to him. And he cared about each of them as if they were his own because – in his mind – they were. Jesse helped a lot of kids make it at camp. Some of these kids really weren’t socially or emotionally ready to make it at camp but Jesse once again made it his business to protect and guide them through.
When I founded Project Joy, Jesse was right beside me as an eager to learn volunteer. When we finally raised enough money for a full-time hire, he was my first choice. When we transitioned from working directly with children to working directly with childcare professionals – many of whom who were also undervalued and marginalized – Jesse embraced them with the same level of authenticity, love, joy and dedication that he did children. To be truthful however, Jesse never fully made the transition. You see, Jesse was a rebel and no change in mission / organizational strategy was going to pull him away from kids. Following coaching site visits with Head Start teachers, Jesse would often stay in the classroom for hours eating lunch with the children, reading stories to them and playing. Nobody – especially his “boss” – was ever going to take that away from him.
Just days after completing a Playmaker Workshop for indigenous teachers from Hawaii, Jesse was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought hard and outlived his prognosis by a lot. He died at the age of thirty. We’ve missed him ever since. Although we know that the hole that he left in our Playmaker Community can never be filled, we have chosen to honor his legacy by honoring a Playmaker who embodies Jesse’s authenticity spirit of love, fun and fierce dedication to society’s underdogs, both young and old.