09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Jason Crowe was so precocious his parents put him in the second grade at age 5. But like many gifted children, Jason, who lives in Newburgh, Ind., couldn't concentrate—or even tie his shoes—in school, and he always seemed to be in trouble. Those were difficult days, but Jason knew that when he got home Nanny would be there. Nanny was Mary Alice Long, his maternal grandmother, and she meant the world to him. Then, five years ago, at age 85, Long was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "When she died," says Jason, now 13, "part of me died with her."
But something else was born. Channeling his anguish into positive energy, Jason—who received a 1999 Point of Light award from President Clinton—started The Informer, a bimonthly newsletter for kids with articles on trends like Pokémon, plus such serious issues as hunger and war. It has 1,000 subscribers in 29 states and 16 foreign countries. Jason donates the profits (about $3,000 so far) to the American Cancer Society.
In 1998, Jason founded a group to raise $100,000 to build a peace statue in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last year he created Operation Yellow Bow for Kosovo, which raised $4,000 for the Red Cross. And recently he started Youth for Peace in the Year Two Thousand, which aims to hold a children's peace summit in Bosnia. Oh yes, in his spare time he does community work, organizing a literacy program at the local library and a food and toys drive for tornado victims. "Jason flat out astounds me with what he's doing," says folksinger Joan Baez, who met him at a concert in '98 and shares the boy's passion for peace. "It was clear when I met him he was a genius."
He just may be. The boy's parents, Dennis, 77, and Cindy, 52—both retired teachers—say Jason knew the alphabet at 14 months and was reading road signs at 1½. (His sister Roxana, 29, is an attorney in Milwaukee.) But in school, Jason was bored, antsy. "I remember the teacher saying, 'Behave or I'll hang you,' " says Jason. The Crowes took him to be tested at the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University, where the staff marveled at the boy's intelligence. "He's like one of those sponges with super-absorption," says staff development coordinator Laura Whaley.
Still, as Nanny began treatment and moved into the family's brick ranch-style house, Jason struggled through third grade. "When I had a bad day, Nanny was there," he says. She even got down on the floor to play with his toy soldiers. "When I wanted to know about something, she would have the answers," Jason says. "Sometimes we didn't have to talk at all."
As Nanny's condition worsened, the Crowes decided to school Jason at home. "I wanted him to have as much time as he could with his Nanny," says Cindy, "and it gave us a chance to try some different teaching methods on him." Nanny succumbed to her illness on Aug. 10, 1996. Some weeks later, desperate to pull the boy out of his slump, the Crowes took him to James Delisle, a professor of education at Kent State University. "I told Jason," says Delisle, "rather than concentrating on his grandmother dying, he should concentrate on using his gifts to do something positive. That's when he came up with the newsletter."
These days Jason continues to be educated at home; he will probably go on to college at age 15. In the meantime, though, he is anxious to erect his peace statue in Sarajevo, a sculpture with children in it, to give the long-warring parties pause. "There is an old folk song," says Jason, "that goes, 'Hearts starve as well as bodies/Give us bread, but give us roses.' People need real help, but they also need spiritual help."
Nanny would understand.
John Slania in Newburgh