BY MARY WICOFF
When Jay Berkes returned from Haiti earlier this year, he was feeling pessimistic. The problems in the impoverished country seemed overwhelming.
But, the Danville native focused on the one bright spot, the one redeeming grace — a school and its children.
“You see the progress. You see these kids learning,” he said. “This community needs this school.”
Fueled by that thought, Berkes is making a cross-country bicycle trip to raise emergency funds for the ailing grade school, Le Foyer, which is operated by H.E.L.P., Inc., in rural Haiti.
Berkes, 24, left Glenwood Springs, Colo., on Oct. 10, and hopes to reach New York City by Nov. 20, covering 2,600 miles. His goal is to raise $50,000, and he’s already raised enough to keep the school open for another year. All money will go to H.E.L.P., a community-based medical and educational organization, and its school.
He will bike 100 miles every day that is not devoted to presentations, meetings and documentary screenings.
Berkes, a 2006 graduate of Schlarman Academy, made presentations at Schlarman and Danville High School this week. On Sunday, he will speak after each Mass at St. Paul’s Church. He will resume his bike trip on Monday.
During a stop at DHS, Berkes told the students he’s had challenges along the way. One day, he woke up to a farmer holding a pitchfork, asking what Berkes was doing on his land. Berkes didn’t realize he was on private property. Another time, he woke up next to two skunks, who thankfully didn’t spray him.
Otherwise, he said, he’s met some nice, helpful people every day.
In his presentations, Berkes shows the students how young people in Haiti don’t have many choices. If they can’t afford to go to school, then they have to work in the fields. Eighty percent of the population lives on $1.25 a day; in the United States, less than 1 percent of the country lives on that amount.
About 76 percent of the students make it through elementary school and about 22 percent through secondary school, he said.
When natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, hit, a Haitian family has to decide whether to send a child to school or rebuild.
Berkes’ mother, Suzie Berkes, is an art and English as a Second Language teacher at DHS, and also a local artist. She arranged for her classes to hear her son’s presentation. Her students had been preparing for his visit by reading Berkes’ accounts of his trip online.
Their reaction to his presentation was positive, she said, and some have been inspired by his journey. His presentation also started a discussion about how we influence each other, and that sets off a chain of events.
Sometimes, just a small thing can inspire someone, she said, adding, “He does put that spark into people.”
A need to help
Berkes received a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 2010, and has plans to go to medical school. However, he decided to take time to get world experience before returning to school.
In the summers, he is a whitewater rafting guide in the mountains of Colorado. He also works as an emergency medical technician and substitute teacher in New Orleans.
In New Orleans, he met doctors who had been to Haiti. He was inspired by the story of a doctor who built up an organization in Haiti to help people.
After reading an article about Dr. Michel-Henry Brutus and H.E.L.P., he e-mailed the doctor in Haiti and offered to work in exchange for housing and food.
In October 2011, Berkes traveled to Haiti, which is still trying to rebuild after a devastating earthquake hit in January 2010. H.E.L.P. had lost nearly 95 percent of its physical infrastructure. That means children ages 5-15 were not able to attend school.
In Haiti, he was a public health agent whose duties included consulting, screenings, maternity-ward work and other medical procedures. He also taught physical education and English at the school.
In addition, for two months, he worked with World Vision, based in Port au Prince. He wrote a document about the process of moving people from the displaced-persons camps.
Berkes was working for the school and as a public health agent in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port au Prince. The distance between the two cities was only 20 miles, but it took him two hours on the rutted roads. He had to find transportation each day, and his ability to speak Haitian-Creole helped him negotiate a price on the motorcycle taxies.
Berkes returned to the states in May, and already has plans to return early next year.
Back home, he came up with the idea to ride a bicycle to raise money for the struggling school. The money will give the school a bit of “breathing room” as it rebuilds, he said. However, H.E.L.P. wants to be self-sustaining.
“It’s not hopeless,” he said of his quest to help the organization and the children. “It’s going to be difficult — but not hopeless. It takes a lot of patience and not giving up on what you believe in.”
He knows he can’t change the world, but he believes in giving Haiti a chance to help itself. “The cycle of poverty is difficult to get out of. This is a small way of progressing,” he said.
When people ask Berkes why they should help Haiti, he encourages them to read the country’s history. “You’ll be blown away by the importance of the Haitian revolution (in the late 1700s) and what these people have done. It’s now this tiny little island that has been forgotten. I think this is an investment in their future and our own.”
Berkes grew up in a family that believes in helping others. He said he “hit the parent lottery” with his mother, Suzie, and father, Jim, a physician assistant with Carle. His parents urged the children to make a difference, but they didn’t push anything on them.
Berkes also has a sister, Celia, in the Detroit, Mich., area, and two brothers, Paul of Bartlett and Sam of Peoria.
Learn more about Jay Berkes’ trip and make pledges online at www.haiti100.com. You also may call him at (217) 918-1385 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on H.E.L.P., Inc., visit its website http://www.helpinconline.org.