Here's how Jerome Higginbotham describes what it is like to lose your only child: an open wound with a scab that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Jesse Higginbotham would have been almost 23 now. Probably he would be a graduate of Murray State University and working in a technical field having to do with computers, developing solutions that open up computing to the less privileged.
He would have been a good man.
But Jesse died April 19, 2007, in a car crash on Versailles Road while on his way to school at Paul Laurence Dunbar. He was 17. Three other people in the car, including the driver, survived.
Jesse's parents, Higginbotham and Rebecca Woloch, are dedicating the rest of their lives to honoring their boy.
Parents are so often judged by their children, Higginbotham said. This time around, he and Woloch want everyone to know how good their son was through the good works they do on his behalf, he said.
"I didn't get a chance to put him out in the world," Higginbotham said. "Everything I do here now is a reflection of him. I show people how good he was by being the best I can be."
"Everything" he does includes the Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trust Inc., a nonprofit that includes The Mindtriggerz Project and the Dunbar Memorial Garden, which honors Jesse and two other Dunbar students who died — Josh Shipman in 2006 and Hannah Landers, who worked frequently in the garden, in 2008.
The Mindtriggerz Project distributes computers — 97 so far — to families that cannot afford them. Higginbotham spends Saturdays teaching computer skills in the Valley Park shelter, which is now named for Jesse. He can teach students as young as 3 years old.
The most recent computer, the organization's first laptop, went to a nursing student who had graduated from Dunbar, where the media lab is named in honor of Jesse.
Higginbotham and Woloch's efforts to honor Jesse have expanded into other directions, too: desserts for first responders and charities during the holidays, donated materials for organizations such as The Nest, a book drive to be held during March.
The Mindtriggerz Project operates on a small budget with money gleaned from an annual sale of native plants at Dunbar, from donations from some families who send a check each year, from donated computers and from the couple's ceaseless and unpaid efforts.
The pair won't stop until they see the free wireless broadband service up and running that Jesse wanted for Cardinal Valley. The Lexington Public Free Wi-Fi project, first announced in 2010, was funded by $1.1 million in state and federal public safety grants and a $550,000 donation by the Knight Foundation.
The free service is not the variety many consumers buy from cable operators, where the basic service is 10 meg speed. This is more like 1 meg, Higginbotham said, adding it's useful for basic homework tasks and submitting online applications.
The city has put together a team to assure that the areas targeted for the free service will receive it reliably by later this year, said Scott Shapiro, an aide to Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. That should be done using new traffic engineering fiber down Versailles Road, he added.
"There is some coverage in Cardinal Valley," he said. "It's spotty. We are in no way satisfied with this."
Higginbotham meets monthly with city officials to check on when the service will be fully available to Cardinal Valley and the East End. Jesse would have wanted that. His parents want that. They have time and determination, they say, and it will get done eventually.
And they have grown more sophisticated about the computers they want to distribute. Now, said Woloch, the minimum standard would be a Pentium processor and an LCD screen. They know that technology changes quickly and don't want to distribute junk computers. Higginbotham loads each computer with the free Ubuntu open-source software, which wipes the hard drive.
Jesse believed in open-source technology.
They want to put people on the information superhighway. Jesse would have wanted that too, they say, and he particularly would have wanted it for Cardinal Valley, a neighborhood of solid but usually modest brick houses, apartments, and racial and economic diversity.
Woloch and Higginbotham said they were proud to raise their son in that neighborhood. Woloch can see Cardinal Valley Elementary School from her kitchen window.
"I appreciate their work, especially in Cardinal Valley," said 11th District council member Peggy Henson, who knew Jesse from the time he was a child. "Jesse had a dream. He was way above his time as far as computer technology. When I was just getting a computer and figuring out how to use it, he was a wiz. He knew so much."
Jessie's father feels the same way.
"We're trying to build coalitions here in the valley that help people," he said. "Jesse was a kid that grew up in this community, and he felt safe in this community."
Jesse was on Facebook before it got hot, they say. He was on Twitter as "Jesse Malthus," the name of his character on the virtual reality site Second Life. On April 1, 2007, he wrote he was imagining ways to improve the micro-blogging service, which he called "social narcissism" although he was an ardent early user, tweeting for the last time the day before the car accident that took his life.
Despite all the activity in Jesse's honor, the fact of Jesse's death never leaves Woloch and Higginbotham. There are pictures of him all over Woloch's house, and a little shrine with a lit candle has three acorns around it — in honor of Shipman, Landers and Jesse, the child who in elementary school was known as "the little biddy kid with the great big book."
"We have a great responsibility to his name," Higginbotham said.
How to help
The Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trust's annual native plant sale will be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 11 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
Kentucky Gives Day, a 24-hour period during which Kentucky nonprofits solicit donations, is April 24. The trust is among the organizations that will be accepting donations online.