By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Growing up in the Ensley community, Douglas Jackson can remember helping his grandparents to pass out meals after church on Sundays.
“They showed me that having compassion for our fellow man is something that bestows a blessing upon us,” said Jackson, 65, founder and director of Kikstart Inc., a program that provides food and educates communities on the importance of nutritional awareness.
Jackson founded Kikstart more than 20 years ago, when he and his wife, Emilia, were living in Arizona.
“Doing what I’m doing now in Birmingham, serving young people and adults is very gratifying. Knowing we are helping someone, … for us, is like a ministry—and that ministry is feeding God’s kids,” said Jackson. “That is what we take the most pride in and being a true entrepreneur.”
Kikstart distributes food boxes to needy families and hosts a summer lunch program that provides free meals to children, as well as a back-to-school drive and an after-school program that provides tutoring, mentorship, and activities for students. They also have several sites where they give out free meals each day. Since March, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kikstart has prepared and dished out more than 400,000 meals to the community.
“We have literally fed hundreds of thousands of families during this time of need, and we’ll continue to feed [families of students in] Birmingham City and Jefferson County schools through July 31,” he said. “We’ve been blessed that we haven’t had a lot of people working with us that have gotten sick; they’ve been at work all the time and taken this serious, and we’ve continued to push on.”
When Jackson was 7, his mother, Mylene, passed away from cancer; when he was 9, his father, Douglas, passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. Jackson and his two older brothers were raised by their grandparents, the Rev. C.T. and Ally Thrash. The deaths of his parents taught Jackson a valuable lesson about health.
“I never drank or smoked, and it taught me that we need to try to live healthy and keep our bodies in the best shape that we can,” he said. “That is part of what led me to what we do—the [nutrition] food program.”
Growing up, Jackson worked at his grandfather’s church, Friendship Primitive Baptist Church, where they passed out food and helped needy families. Jackson also was part of the Upward Bound program at Miles College.
“It was one of the greatest experiences I ever had because I had an opportunity to be with other high school and college students,” he said. “It stressed academics, and it gave us a sense of uplift and pride to do well academically. During the summer, we got the chance to stay on campus. … It uplifted me because when I was in ninth grade, my counselor told me I wasn’t college material, but Upward Bound taught me that I could do anything and that knowledge can never be taken away from you.”
Jackson graduated from Western-Olin High School, now P.D. Jackson-Olin High School, in 1972 and went on to attend Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. After his sophomore year, he transferred to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1978. He then joined the U.S. Department of Defense, gathering intel for the U.S. Army, the FBI, and the CIA; he spent much of his time overseas working in Honduras, Panama, and Korea.
“I got to travel a lot, and it was a very exciting field to be in,”said Jackson, who also earned a master’s degree in criminal justice from Eastern Kentucky in 1986 and a PhD in computer information management from the University of New Mexico in 1989.
Jackson retired from the Department of Defense in the early 1990s, after 22 years, and took a position as a computer science professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Eventually, he moved to Serra Vista, Arizona, where he worked with the University of Arizona to assist in implementing nutrition programs for some of the area’s charter schools.
“At that time, many of the charter schools didn’t have cafeterias, and we were very instrumental in establishing those cafeterias for them,” he said. “I was an administrator, and because computer information was my specialty, I also helped introduce interactive learning and teaching by video conferencing.”
Kikstart began in 2001 after Jackson and his wife attended a church in Phoenix, Arizona, that didn’t have a lunch program.
“We started feeding kids at the charter school and the church, and other charter schools started asking where they were getting their meals from,” Jackson said. “One by one, the schools started asking us if we would provide meals. … Before we knew it, we were serving more than 40 schools in Phoenix and the surrounding areas.”
When Jackson returned to Birmingham in 2018, he brought the program with him. Kikstart prepares and serves about 14,000 meals a day to children, ages 1 to 18, through its after-school and summer feeding programs.
“We prepare a lot of meals from scratch, and we don’t cook with a lot of pork and things; … a lot of our meals [are prepared with] turkey and chicken,” he said. “We try to push the nutritional, healthy element of what we do.”
Kikstart also provides Thanksgiving meal boxes to families, works with the United Way Area Agency on Aging to provide Meals on Wheels for seniors, offers a congregate meal program that provides lunches to the elderly Monday through Friday, and is instrumental in a Christmas program that gives gifts.
Education is a key part of the Kikstart program, as well, Jackson said.
“We have a building in Bessemer that we got through community development, [where we have a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)] program. We also just renovated part of it for a technology learning center that will open some time this summer,” he said. “We’re very proud of the center we have in Bessemer because we also want it to be a testing center, where kids can work on their GEDs and ACTs or SATs; they can come in, get instruction, and try to improve their test scores.”
For Jackson and his team, this is what they should be doing.
“We’re very spiritual and connected, and we think nothing happens by chance—it happens by faith, and that is the reason we’re here,” he said. “God told us to feed His children, and we’re obeying what has been placed on our hearts and in our spirits to do.”
To learn more about Kikstart, visit www.kikstart.org.