March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

Karole Smith had nowhere left to turn. Her daughter Kristen, then 11, suffered from muscular dystrophy, and medical bills were streaming in. Unable to afford health insurance, Karole and her husband, Keith, an air-conditioning technician, spent every spare cent they had on Kristen’s care. When they were able to purchase coverage, the company refused to pay for Kristen’s treatment, citing the industry’s standard exemption for preexisting conditions. Worse, the Smiths were beset by collection agencies and the IRS. “As a mother who’s supposed to protect her family,” says Karole, “I felt totally powerless.”

Then one day an SUV pulled up to the Smiths’ Griggstown, N.J., home, and at the wheel was their salvation: Paul Jackson. He paid a lawyer to help sort out their tax problems and offered money to take care of the bills. “If it wasn’t for Paul, I would probably be in a mental institution, and my daughter would be in the custody of the state,” says Karole, 34, who had phoned Jackson as a last resort. Even after other funds and charities had turned her away, she says, “he helped us get our feet back on the ground.”

Paul Jackson, 39, knows adversity and ways to fight it. Eleven years ago the 6’2″ former college football player was paralyzed from the chest down by a tumor in his spinal cord. His insurer refused to cover physical rehabilitation costs beyond the standard treatment. Learning of his plight, a group of friends, many of them parents of Little Leaguers he had coached in his hometown of Westfield, N.J., organized the Paul Jackson Fund to help pay additional expenses. “It was humbling,” says Jackson. “But this helps me now because everybody I go to is humbled.”

After overcoming the initial depression that set in when he realized that even additional therapy would never help him walk again, Jackson chose to pass along the good will he had been shown. Since 1995, the year he took the helm of the fund originally established to aid him, he has raised $1.5 million and helped more than 100 families in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut pay for needs arising from disabilities or long-term illness. “We help prevent people in crisis from going to catastrophe,” says Jackson. Says his friend Kevin O’Callaghan, a construction executive from Rye, N.Y., who is on the fund’s board: “When it all has begun to spiral out of control, Paul has found them or they’ve found Paul.” He adds, “Before, it was a decent fund-raising organization. Now I believe it has his soul.”

Jackson owes much of that soul to his parents, Thomas, 71, a retired securities analyst, and Barbara, 65, a student adviser. The duo raised their large Catholic family—Jackson is the fifth of eight children—in a seven-bedroom, three-story Victorian. “It was a happy home with no privacy and one shower,” says Jackson. “Imagine Christmas mornings trying to get ready for 10:30 mass.”

Growing up, Jackson was consumed by athletics. “Throw a pair of sneakers on me and kick me outside, and I’d be occupied all day,” he says. During high school he also helped out at a pool for handicapped children at a local hospital. After graduation, Jackson bounced around several colleges (he is 15 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree in psychology) and volunteered to coach Little League.

Through the father of one of the Little Leaguers he coached he got a job at a shipping company, which relocated him to Charleston, S.C. There, in the summer of 1987, life took a tragic turn. As he was running to first base in a softball game, his legs became rubbery. “If you know the cartoon character Gumby, my legs started flopping,” says Jackson. An MRI, the first of more than 30 he has since had, revealed a 4-in. tumor in the spinal cord.

Surgery got most of the tumor and he could walk again, after extensive rehabilitation. Upbeat but still concerned, he moved back home because he missed his family. (“My parents are my best friends,” he says.) Two years later the tumor returned, and after a second operation he was left a paraplegic. “I was a miserable bastard for the first five years coming out of surgery,” he says. “Caught up in myself, very selfish.” To help supplement the $200 a month he received for physical therapy from his insurer, friends threw an initial fund-raiser that drew close to 400 people and collected more than $10,000. More than the money, the moral support helped turn Jackson around. “I didn’t realize how many people cared,” he says.

People like Beverly Turner are grateful Jackson chose to share that caring. A 48-year-old Army vet who suffers from a degenerative muscle disease and has adopted or been given custody of 16 mostly handicapped children, Turner did not have enough insurance or income to provide all her kids with health care and repair her rundown nine-bedroom house in Irvington, N.J. When charities couldn’t fill the breach, Jackson responded with two new washing machines, a batch of secondhand clothes and a Christmas Eve trip to the store for $500 worth of groceries and to Kmart for gifts for the kids. “His face was lit up with joy,” Turner says of Jackson. “The beauty of what I do,” adds Jackson, “is that people without hope get hope.”

Nick Charles

Debbie Seaman in Westfield

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