I am an Elk - Meet Jason Darden
Not knowing what he wanted to be when he grew up never let Jason Darden from enjoying life, work, or volunteering. Throughout his life, Jason has been devoted to service to others from his early days as a Royal Ambassador as a child to his now dedication to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. And the hopes of a young Portuguese girl for a better life in America more than a century ago are the reason he is now here to make our lives better by being in them.
In 1915, thirteen-year-old Hortense Lescault lied to immigration officials that she was fifteen when she arrived in the United States aboard a steamship, leaving her native Portugal. She did not give her true age because, at the time, an unaccompanied thirteen-year-old would have been returned to Europe. She settled in Bristol County, Rhode Island where she would marry and raise her family, including a son, Charles Lamora. When the United States entered World War II, Charles and his bride Eloise moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where Charles would receive training as a member of the Army Air Corps. They would have a daughter, Mary, Jason’s mother.
Jason was born in the early 1980s to Mary and her husband, Rickie Darden, in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Rickie retired as a Master Shipbuilder after a forty-plus-year career at Ingalls Shipbuilding. Mary spent thirty-eight years in nursing, a career that influenced her son. The family, including Jason’s sister Rachel, lived in a home in the old Navy housing neighborhood called Chipley near 13th Street and Parsley Avenue. As Jason’s mother, Mary, was extremely close to her identical twin sister, Jason refers to having had “two moms and two dads” and considers his two cousins as extended sisters.
His childhood was full of love from his parents, and he was the typical kid living near the beach. He would play in the bayou that is now known as Buffett Bayou where the singer Jimmy Buffett once played as a child. Jason would splash around and catch minnows as young boys often do there even now. Darden would ride his bicycle to Bozo’s Grocery on Ingalls Ave before it ever became the tourist attraction it is now and buy half a pound of shrimp to take to the beach and fish from the seawall or pier.
Jason attended South Elementary School on Ingalls Ave. He often liked to be dropped off around the corner from school to be able to walk the remainder of the way to the campus. “The rumor is that Elvis Presley went to school here briefly,” Jason says. Vernon Presley and his family, including the future King of Rock and Roll, did live in Pascagoula for a moment from May to June 1943. Vernon had found work with the Works Progress Administration’s Ingalls Shipbuilding expansion project. But the Presley family returned to Lee County after becoming homesick for Tupelo after only a few months. It is likely that Elvis lived in one of the homes built by the Navy to support the population boom that Pascagoula was experiencing during the war. South Elementary was right in the middle of that housing development.
In elementary, Jason first began his service-related life as a member of the Royal Ambassadors at Parkway Baptist Church. A faith-based mission and service-oriented organization for boys in grades 1-6, the Royal Ambassador program helps boys to become aware of the needs of people around the world and to respond to those needs. This became an ongoing theme in Jason’s life – service to others. Outside of church, Jason played baseball for the Kiwanis and John Thomas teams. Batting right-handed, Jason played first base and catcher. A broken wrist in sixth grade ended baseball for him but led him to his next greatest love – music.
Beginner band was finally down to the sixth grade, and Jason picked up the saxophone. He laughs about trying out on different instruments, “Brass tickled my lips,” and even saxophone was not his best audition, but he settled on the horn and began working hard to excel at the instrument. Moving to Pascagoula Junior High School on Pascagoula Street Jason joined his first extra-curricular club, Teen Connection a drug awareness organization for students that promoted drug-free lifestyles and distributed anti-drug publications. “This was the first true club I remember being in,” he says.
Darden reflected on the end of each school he attended. South Elementary is no more and has been torn down. A school district soccer complex now sits in the footprint of the former school. Pascagoula Junior High School became Trent Lott Middle School when Jason advanced to the eighth grade, and his ninth grade was the last to see the old Pascagoula High School before it moved to its current location when Jason began tenth grade.
High school was good to Jason. He excelled academically, musically, and socially. He was a member of the Beta Club and the National Honor Society. In marching and symphonic band, he flourished under the leadership of his music mentor, Jerry Ball, the well-loved band director who led his students to countless music championships and careers. Jason remembers his favorite halftime show. It was Mr. Ball’s final year and Jason’s Junior year of high school. During the show, there was a stage in the middle of the field where Jason and four other saxophonists dressed in different colored suits – Jason was in all black - were wired for sound and played the sounds of Big Band jazz to the delight of the crowd. The band would receive all superiors for the show. He additionally held the honor of being the first chair saxophone for the Mississippi Lions Band for his senior year and later the John Phillips Sousa National Honor Band.
During his high school years, he began working as a veterinary technician for Singing River Animal Hospital. “I had always been interested in science,” he says, and he could not decide on a career choice. So, he prepared for several by taking zoology, botany, and genetics as he finished high school.
At seventeen, Jason would graduate from high school and begin his college journey at the University of Southern Mississippi double majoring in music and biology. “I wanted to be a band director and a pediatric surgeon.” In his second semester at USM, he joined Tau Beta Sigma, a co-ed music sorority, and became the Sergeant at Arms and eventually President of the organization.
Attending USM for three years and living in Hattiesburg for five years, Jason worked for Davis Veterinary Hospital where he earned the nickname “Dog Whisperer.” “I could go into a room alone with the dog and they would just sense my personality and come with me,” he said of why he got the nickname. Jason says that he had toyed with the thought of becoming a veterinarian, but it was human medical care in which he was genuinely interested. He explains that the difference is basic economics as well. “You’re not going to crack open a dog’s chest, but you will a human. If you tell an owner that it’s going to cost $3000 for treatment for their animal, most are going to tell you to just put it down. For humans, that cost is small in comparison to what people will do to treat their loved ones.” Because of this, he says that medicine advances more and had more opportunities in treating people rather than animals. He took that calling and began working as a radiology technician at Forrest General Hospital for several years working his way to the emergency department to become an ER Tech.
He returned to Pascagoula though and changed his major to obtain his associate degree in nursing from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Gautier Campus, where he again found his calling in serving others. He was a charter member of Rotaract, a Rotary-affiliated organization for college students. This organization focuses on fighting diseases, ending polio, promoting Peace, promoting the local economy, and protecting the environment, among other causes. He also quickly became a Student Government Association representative and became the Executive President of the student body for all three campuses in 2011. In addition, he became the president of the Student Nursing Organization while in school. Darden also began a Marine Paleontology internship at the Gulf Coast Research Center. He says, “JC is where I excelled with extra-curricular service groups.”
He became the president of the MGCCC’s Student Nursing Organization and the state treasurer for the Mississippi Association of Associate Degree Nurses Student Organization. Jason says that this time was difficult for him as he went from having an extremely busy life with no time to breathe. When he went to work for Singing River Hospital, everything was reduced to work and home. It left a large void in his life and in his desire to serve others. And while his fifteen years at Singing River Hospital, where he ended up working again in an emergency room, were in the service of others, it was not the same for him.
Darden’s Grandfather Lamora, the Army Air Corps veteran, gave Jason the necessary military connection for Jason to join the American Legion Post 160 in Pascagoula. He again quickly volunteered for everything that he could, including being a rifleman on the Posts’ Honor Guard, where he met Preston Wells, who was the detail’s bugler. He also met Pascagoula Elks 1120 Auxiliary member Tonya Hays, who worked at the Legion at the time. On Tonya’s invite and Preston’s insistence, he began to visit the Pascagoula Elks Lodge. Wells would later put an Elks membership application in Jason’s hand and did not give him a chance to say no, sponsoring Darden to become a member. Jason was initiated on October 11, 2018, with Exalted Ruler Sherwood Beckham presiding over the ritual.
As he has with every other organization of which he has ever been a part, Jason immediately involved himself as much as he could. He has worked in the kitchen since the day he joined and has now served as the Kitchen Committee Chairman for three years. He has been Lecturing Knight, Loyal Knight, and was just elected Leading Knight for the 2023-2024 Elks Year.
For the Pascagoula Elks Lodge 1120, Jason is the first openly gay member. He has seen the Lodge change to become more open and accepting of all who want to be members. This was especially true as he sponsored the first Black member the Lodge elected and initiated as well. He does not publicize either fact but is not shy about the topics if you speak to him about them. What he wants to be known for is being an Elk – not those two insignificant things. “I want to do my part to offer something for community service,” he says and feels that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks is the perfect place for this. “The camaraderie you experience,” he pauses, “It’s a big dysfunctional family at times. But at the end of the day [we love each other] enough to help one another and work together.”
What does he have time left for? How about Carnival Balls? He has been a Duke in the Pascagoula Elks Carnival Ball three times, the American Legion Post 160’s Ball two times, and once each for the Krewe of Tri-Cities and the Krewe of Isis. He has also been a host for the Dixie Dazzler’s ball. Additionally, he continues to call Parkway Baptist Church his religious home where his Letter of Faith resides.
Jason lives in Pascagoula where he dotes on his niece Bella, and his nephew Jesse, Rachel’s children. He also has time for his other nieces and nephews from his “extended sisters.”
Hey Jason? Don’t ever slow down, our friend. We love your Elks enthusiasm.