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Meet Our Founder: Jennifer Berkemeier

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

With our first fundraiser—Footsteps for Futures—starting next week, August 3, we want to take the opportunity to introduce you to our founder, Jennifer Berkemeier. Below you can find out what compelled her to get involved with the Centre and establish Avek Ou. You can also find out her favorite movies, what she likes to do in her free time, and her connections to Haiti. Most important, you can learn about why you should get involved with Avek ou!

Why did you start this organization?

I was inspired to start Avek Ou in May of 2019 after reading an article in the Haitian Times about a shelter in Port-au-Prince that was built in the 1960s to address the growing population of homeless youth making a living in the streets of the capital. The author of the article talked to some of the youth living there who stated that they were afraid for their future, that they struggled to get one meal a day, that they were not guaranteed even the most basic medical care, and that their educational needs were not being met. At the time, I was part of another organization that supported young adults,16 - 7 years old, who were aging out of orphanages in Haiti I very much enjoyed working with that nonprofit, and prior to serving there, I had been on the board of a Haitian orphanage. After reading about the shelter for homeless youth, I knew I wanted to start my own organization that would help the kids at the shelter; they spoke to me through that article.

What are your ties to Haiti?

I have always been fascinated with Haiti and chose to focus on Haiti throughout college as an Anthropology major. Fast-forward to 2009 when I rejoined my childhood church and learned they had a regular mission trip to Haiti. I had also just started the process of adopting from Haiti as a single parent. I went to Haiti for the first time with my church in 2010; we worked on restructuring an orphanage that had been damaged by the 2010 earthquake. I went again with my church in 2011. It was during this visit that I was blessed to be able to visit my future daughter at her orphanage, a day and experience I will never forget! I visited Haiti again in 2012 to complete the paperwork for the adoption and brought my little girl home-she was 4 years old. I made many Haitian friends along the way, and still keep in touch with the owners of her orphanage. I am raising my daughter to be educated about and to be very proud of her Haitian heritage.

What does Avek Ou do or hope to do in Haiti?

Avek Ou supports, through raising funds and awareness, the 150+ boys who currently live at a Welcome Centre in Haiti, which is a shelter for boys with no family support. I and the other board members look at the boys and young men who live at the Centre and see future entrepreneurs, doctors, philanthropists, and teachers. They have the drive, intelligence and vision to achieve and contribute as independent Haitian citizens; they simply lack opportunity. We are small, but we hope to do big things for these boys. We fundraise so we can give them access to education, healthy meals, basic medical care, security and life options. Our vision is that each boy leaves the Centre emboldened with the confidence, skills, and motivation to contribute to his family and neighborhood. We believe in the butterfly effect: One boy’s dream could bring a futuristic garden, hospital or school to his community.

What are your goals for Avek Ou for the next three to five years?

What will help you achieve them?

What barriers are in your way?

The Board goals for the immediate few years include growing our support base, adding to our newsletter contact list, growing our social media following and having our first gala/fundraiser in September 2021. At the Centre, goals include guaranteeing K-12 education for each boy there, stocking the infirmary with basic medical supplies, strengthening the electrical infrastructure, repairing the sports/playfields, providing a small salary for the staff, cleaning and upgrading the children’s sleeping area and ensuring three healthy meals a day for the boys and staff.

To achieve those ambitious goals, our Board will contsantly promote our organization; gaining new supporters on an ongoing basis will be key. We will always strive to bring on new donors and partners and increase our online following.

The barriers to progress are time and money! We are all volunteers and therefore have limited time to devote to working toward the goals. However, I have no doubt that our grit, devotion and determination as a team will overcome any challenges we may face.

What is the hardest decision the organization has had to make and how did you evaluate the tradeoffs involved?

At this time, we have fortunately have not had to make any real tough decisions. The hardest thing for me is knowing we are a small organization and therefore we are not able to address all the many concerns at the Centre immediately. I would love to be able to take on two or three big projects at once. The reality is, we can only successfully tackle one project at a time. It’s hard for me to take baby steps! But that does not discourage us as a board; it teaches us how to be measured and how to carefully choose. All decisions about where to direct funds are made in conjunction with the Director of the Centre.

What do you, personally, spend most of your time on?

Most of my free time is split between being a mom and the work for Avek Ou. I try to be productive with Avek Ou projects in the early morning, when my daughter is sleeping or when she is at a friend’s house. When I’m not focusing on Avek Ou, my daughter and I go for bike rides, read, play games, or work on homework. I’m also teaching her how to cook! My other personal favorite pastimes are reading, walking, exercising and photography.

What makes you smile?

Spending time with my daughter! Being outside in nature in the summer, going for walks and bike rides. Taking nature photos. Movie nights with my daughter.

What is your favorite movie and who is your favorite author?

My favorite movie has to be Big Fish. It’s a beautiful story about the magical imagination of an elderly father and the strained relationship he has with his married son. I have watched this movie half a dozen times, and the ending remains, to me, the most powerful 15 minutes in a movie I’ve ever seen; I cry every time.

My favorite author is Edwidge Danticat, the award-winning Haitian author. One of the highlights of my life was getting to meet her recently and having a private conversation with her and my daughter!

The medical Anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer truly inspires me; I’ve read many of his books about Haiti which provide incomparable, unflinching narratives of working among the rural poor in Haiti.

What is your favorite Haitian food?

Fried plantain!! Also, Haitian rice and beans.

Why should people get involved with Avek Ou? What makes this nonprofit different?

One thing that might at first seem to be a negative is the fact that we are a small organization focusing on a small group of beneficiaries. However, I see this as a huge positive. First, individual donations or contributions make a huge impact; your donation does not get lost in myriad other donations. You are a person with us-not another miscellaneous donor. Being smaller allows us to be very personal with our donors.

Second, we work directly with the Centre’s administrator and another Haitian contact, who ensure any funds donated are used for exactly the stated purpose. We have twice-monthly conference calls with our friends in Haiti, so we are kept abreast of how the boys are doing and so our Haitian contacts know what projects we are working on and understand the progress we are making.

Third, because we focus on a small group of individuals-150 boys-it is easy to keep track of individual successes and communicate them to our supporters. For example, it costs $260 to send one boy to a two-year trade school, which will allow him to graduate with a trade degree. Imagine the impact you could have on someone’s life for $260. You would literally CHANGE a life. And not only that individual, but a trade degree would impact his family and, ultimately, his community. When you donate in a meaningful way such as sending a boy to trade school, you will receive periodic updates on his progress. All donors receive timely information on how their funds are being used.

With us, it’s personal!

Join us as we work to bring education and knowledge to our boys at the Centre with our Footsteps for Futures fundraiser. Click here to for more info and to join us on our walk for education.

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