By Rose Hoban

Desmond Jackson started school about three weeks late last fall, but by his telling, his teachers at Durham’s Hillside High School didn’t give him a hard time when he finally arrived.

That’s because he’d been performing at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, something the young man said was overwhelming.

photo of young man with his arm around his aunt
Desmond Jackson poses with his aunt Jacqueline Johnson. Jackson’s mom Brenda was ill unable to make it to the event honoring her son, but many of his other family members attended. Jackson credits his family, community and church for keeping him focused and motivated. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“When I first arrived at the stadium, I thought, ‘Man, I’m here, this is it, this is what I’ve been training for,’” said the 17-year-old.

Jackson, a track and field athlete who runs the 100 meter, 200 meter and competes in the long jump, was born with a birth defect which caused him to lose his left leg at the knee as a baby. He runs with a blade on his left leg.

“I started track and field when I was eight years old, active kid, loved sports,” Jackson. “It wasn’t like someone told me to try track and field… I’ve been training for about 10 years now, and I remember, when I was about nine years old, I said to myself… I envision myself making the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.”

Before he arrived in Rio, Jackson was rated as the top disabled 100 meter runner in the U.S. He finished at the Paralympics ninth overall, running the race in 12.6 seconds.

Jackson was honored Thursday evening at Durham County Human Services as part of an initiative to encourage African-American men to live more healthy lifestyles.

Men on the move

African-American men have higher rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, prostate cancer and a host of other largely preventable conditions than whites and most other ethnic groups.  That’s part of the reason Durham County’s Health Department has created a local chapter of the My Brother’s Keeper program.

My Brother’s Keeper (or MBK) was launched by Pres. Barack Obama in Feb. 2014 as a way to “address persistent opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.”

The program came with seed money for communities that embraced the program, and communities were encouraged to raise grants and donations to keep the initiative going. A number of cities have launched MBK programs and the state of New York appropriated $20 million to push that state toward achieving some of the program’s goals (see box).

In Durham, health director Gayle Harris helped launch the “Men’s Council” to “help young men of color move to their highest heights.”

“We’re trying to empower African-American men to look after themselves so that they can live as long as African-American women and be all that they can be,” she told the crowd of about 150 who gathered to honor Jackson.

group picture of six people, the two honorees holding up proclamations
Desmond Jackson and Cedric King pose with proclamations from the Durham County Health Dept. Pictured with the men are members of the Durham County staff. (i to r) Chauncey Burgess, Joyce Page, Raven Gregory, Jeffrey Forde

The next initiative is to start a “Men on the Move” program to get black men in the community exercising and motivated for better health.

“We’re gonna experience the great outdoors, because we’re going to [exercise] outside, and learn practical ways to increase health and wellness,” said Jeffrey Forde, manager of Durham City’s Parks and Recreation.


Recognizing Jackson was one way to kick off the Men on the Move program, by bringing attention to the benefits of exercise.

Another of the evening’s honorees brought attention to the psychological benefits of exercise: Army Master Sergeant Cedric King told the story of becoming a triathlete after losing both legs to an IED in Afghanistan in 2012.

“I remember waking up at the hospital six or seven days later, and seeing my wife and mom at the hospital,” the former Army Ranger said. “My wife said, ‘they had to take your legs away.’”

King said he felt sorry for himself, but only for a short time. Just over two years after losing his legs, he completed a grueling half Ironman triathlon.

YouTube video

“You can take my hands, you can take my eyes, you can take my hearing, but cannot take away from me that spirit inside of me that wants to win,” he said.

After being honored himself, King introduced Jackson, who King described as an “inspiration.”  In his introduction, he spoke of meeting Jackson at RDU Airport.

“I see this kid for the first time, he’s just strutting. I think you had your leg over your shoulder, holding it like a rifle or a broomstick,” King said. “it’s amazing how he took the situation life gave him and used this situation as an opportunity.”

King has used his situation to inspire as well. He left the Army last year to develop a career as  an inspirational speaker. He’s become a marathoner and a triathlete as well.

Jackson said he plans to turn professional, even as he is getting ready to go to college to study kinesiology.

When asked, Jackson said that for the short term, he’s training for the world championships in England.

“I have plenty more years to come,” he said.

The My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge encourages communities to convene leaders, identify effective strategies, and work together toward achieving these goals:

  1. Ensuring all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready;
  2. Ensuring all children read at grade level by third grade;
  3. Ensuring all youth graduate from high school;
  4. Ensuring all youth complete post-secondary education or training;
  5. Ensuring all youth out of school are employed; and
  6. Ensuring all youth remain safe from violent crime.


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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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