Jacksons2Rev. Elmer Jackson, left , and his son, Jeff, in training at WOW in Middletown.


Before having open heart surgery in June 2006, Rev. Elmer Jackson met a bicyclist who had already been through the procedure.

“He said I was going to be part of the ‘Zipper Club,'” Jackson recalled, as he pointed to the area where the doctors would make the incision in his chest. The stitches leave marks that turn one’s torso into something resembling a duffel bag.

According to the American Heart Association, about 700,000 people undergo open heart surgery each year. But it’s probaby a safe bet that few Zipper Club members ride a bicycle across the continental United States to celebrate.

This year, on June 1, Jackson — the founder and principal of the West Side Christian Academy — and his son, Jeff, will set out from the San Francisco area and trek 3,500 miles across deserts, mountains, rivers and plains to Sandy Hook. The expect to arrive on July 5, averaging 100 miles of leg-pumping a day.

Why not just cross the Garden State, or Monmouth County? Or, as most people coming off two years of post-surgical asceticism might be tempted to do, just tuck into a celebratory cheeseburger and milkshake?

“The number one reason is health,” Jackson says, “and number two is to raise money for the school.”

A former fighter pilot in the Marine Corps, Jackson is not exactly chiseled anymore. “I was a sloppy 250 pounds” before the surgery, he says. Now he’s down to 225, and works out daily. Son Jeff, who sports a shoulder-length mop of dreadlocks and a bit of a spare tire, says that he needs to lose weight too.

The Jacksons hope to raise $100,000 for the tiny family-run academy, where Jeff is a teacher in charge of the boys. Started in 2000, WSCA provides an K-8 educational alternative for children from low-income families. Jeff Jackson says he wants his charges to graduate not thinking, “can I get into a college, but which college will I get into?”

Still, “Almost every student is at risk,” he says. Of the 25 students at the school, housed at in Calvary Baptist Church on Bridge Avenue, many are from one-parent families, and several are adoptees. Rev. Jackson says the childrens’ parents have a true desire to do their part in educating their kids, but not all of them have the financial wherewithal to keep them in the school long-term.

To meet their financial goal, the Jacksons have recruited 20 Ride Captains to raise $5,000 each by soliciting flat-rate and per-mile donations. They also need equipment, including a bike for Jeff. Rev. Jackson’s cardiologist, Dr. Roland Belluscio, of the Cardiac Care Center, Tinton Falls, has already donated an $1,800 bicycle to the campaign.

“He saved my life,” Rev. Jackson said. And now, the inspiration of that fellow Zipper Club member is spurring him on to this new challenge.

Meeting the cyclist, Jackson says, made him realize that “you’re not just scrap lumber after the surgery.” Or a duffel bag, for that matter.

For more information about the Jacksons’ endeavor, or to donate, call WSCA at 732.741.7900 or e-mail here.

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