2012 People of the Year: J.D., Jackson and Buck Lewis

Father and two sons travel the globe in 12-month social justice journey

2012 IN REVIEW: Read the rest of our year-end review features

Lewis Family with school in Haiti

As the dates on the calendar count slowly down to the end of each year, staff members here at qnotes spend weeks mulling over the past 12 months’ news stories and the movers and shakers who made them. At the end of the year, we choose one LGBT person who has shown outstanding leadership or courage, a person who has inspired others to change and progressive, forward movement or a person who has positively impacted the lives of others.

This year, our choices were made more difficult. The year, so full of accomplishment and activity, brought forth a new crop of leaders and engaged current leaders more than ever before. From the amendment campaign to Charlotte’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention, there are too many valuable leaders to name.

Though our annual “Person of the Year” honor usually goes only to one individual, there are three outstanding people this year — an openly gay father and his two boys — whose inspiring and courageous leadership and work stick out in our mind. For their extraordinary commitment to social justice, both at home and abroad, we’re proud to honor J.D. Lewis and his two sons, Jackson and Buck, as qnotes’ 2012 People of the Year.

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In July 2011, J.D. and his sons Jackson, now 15, and Buck, now 10, set out on a worldwide journey of hope and change. Their travels took them to 12 stops in 12 months, the inspiration for their foundation’s name, “Twelve in Twelve.”

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The non-stop travel put them on every continent on the globe.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, the family volunteered at Transit, an orphanage helping runaway teens. In Sattihip, Thailand, they volunteered in an orphanage for children with Down Syndrome and in Chiang Mai, they volunteered at The Elephant Nature Park, helping with elephants rescued from abuse.

Their travels also took them to McLeod Ganj, India, where they saw the Dalai Lama speak for four days and taught English to Tibetan refugees. In Nairobi, Kenya, the father and sons volunteered in an HIV clinic in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. In frigid Antarctica, they volunteered on The Ushuaia Ship, assisting scientists and ship crew. In La Cumbre, Argentina, the family volunteered at the Refugio de Monos, a rescue refuge for Howler monkeys.

And, after a year of worldwide travel, Lewis and his sons returned to their home nation this summer where in Jackson, Miss., they volunteered with Operation Upward, a food program for inner city kids.

Lewis and his sons say the work still isn’t done. Their foundation, which recently held its official launch on Dec. 13, will raise funds and create infrastructure for future volunteer missions at each of the organizations they assisted in their 12-month journey.

Both Buck and Jackson say the trip inspired them to continue working to help others. Jackson says their trips to China and Argentina are most memorable. There, the family worked with orphaned children.

Buck most enjoyed Thailand.

“I love animals. We worked with elephants there,” Buck says. “It was really inspiring to see what actually we could do to help animals.”

For J.D., the trip was an opportunity to expose his two children to life around the world and to teach them the importance of caring for others. He says it was an often emotional journey. After living with families and communities for as many as 30 days or more, saying goodbye was often difficult. Those memories came flooding back when they came home.

“We worked with kids who are blind or who have HIV or AIDS,” J.D. says. “We worked with malnutritioned kids or kids with physical challenges. When you are there doing it, you’re in the moment and you’re not really processing it. I came home and started writing the book and sort of putting all the thoughts together. It’s just overwhelming.”

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J.D. and his sons know now that what they have is special. Their privilege isn’t something they take for granted, as they work to continue positive change in the communities they visited.

“You can never go back to your old life,” says J.D.

The family doesn’t plan on returning to that old life anytime soon.

“I’m definitely going back to the organizations that we worked with,” says Jackson. “Next July I’m going back to Argentina.”

J.D., too, plans on traveling again on a trip to initiate a food program and assist in school infrastructure in Africa.

“I can’t save the world but I can pick one school and I can say, ‘You guys are going to eat, you guys are going to have pencils, you are going to have support,’” J.D. says. “You can give $100 and change the entire course of a kid’s life.”

The family agrees that their trip taught them life-long lessons they hope to impart to others.

“If you are always looking for more you’re not trying to be satisfied with what you have, which is what matters,” Jackson says. “Even if you have nothing, you can still be happy.”

“The greatest lesson we learned was that material possessions have nothing to do with your state of happiness,” says J.D. “It sounds cliché, but really caring and giving and being with somebody on a heartfelt level is the answer.”

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— Lainey Millen contributed to this story.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.