Helping Hands

It was on the evening of January 12, 2010 that former Oregon State running back Yvenson Bernard got the phone call.

“Yve, did you see what’s going on?” the caller, Bernard’s friend and former teammate Alexis Serna, said. “Check out the news. There’s been an earthquake in Haiti.”

Bernard was shocked. Haiti wasn’t California. He didn’t think earthquakes could happen there. He thanked Serna, touched that his friend remembered he was Haitian, and turned on the news.

“Those people in Haiti didn’t even know what it was,” Bernard says. “They thought it was an act of God, punishing them.”

Bernard, who was living in Seattle at the time, called his father in Florida. He told him what had happened.  “My dad damn near cried,” says Bernard. “He said, ‘My son has to be underneath something or hurt, or not in good hands.’” Bernard’s father then called their relatives in Haiti – a grandmother, cousins, Bernard’s half-brother – but there was no phone service. And there would be no service for nearly two months, which meant that Bernard could only guess whether his family members, including the half-brother he’d never met, were alive or dead.

“You just don’t know what’s going on. I can’t even describe the emotions. Nobody will really understand besides me and people who had family members and siblings and friends there,” Bernard says.

Although Bernard was born in the U.S., both his parents were born in Haiti, and he often spent his summers growing up with relatives on the island. He became close to his family there.

But Bernard had never met his 9-year-old half brother, Sebastian. In fact, he had longstanding plans to travel to Haiti to meet Sebastian in late January, only a couple of weeks after Port-au-Prince was devastated. Now, he didn’t know if he’d ever get to meet him.

The focus of Bernard’s life changed in the weeks after the quake. It was as though he needed to take action, or the stress of not knowing his loved ones’ fates would have been all consuming.

So Bernard, prompted by his girlfriend, Michelle Williams, did.

Within 24 hours he’d started the Haiti Relief Fundraiser, which called upon the Oregon State community and communities throughout Oregon to donate critical supplies like food and clothing to Haiti. Bernard also made sure that dozens of soccer balls and cleats were included among the items, so kids could play and get their minds off of the chaos.

Bernard used the connections he’d made as a student athlete to reach as many people as possible. “People know my name is tied with Oregon State football,” Bernard says. “I’m a good person for them to go through to help Haiti.” He also enlisted the help of football coach Mike Riley, who put Bernard in touch with Reser’s Fine Foods. The company agreed to transport the goods raised through Bernard’s efforts to Haiti for free.

“Yvenson has a heart of gold.  He deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished and for what he continues to aspire to do. We have many student-athletes who look up to him as a role model, and I can’t think of anyone better,” Riley says.

All things said, Bernard’s effort generated more than 24,000 pounds of food and clothing that went to Haiti. What started out as a way for Bernard to help stem his constant sadness turned into an effort that helped thousands of people.

Yvenson Bernard

Alum Yvenson Bernard talks about his relief efforts for Haitian earthquake victims (Photo: Jeff Basinger)

“It’ wasn’t just me. It was the state of Oregon. It was Oregon State. It was the students. It was the student athletes. It was everyone. Everyone was a part of it,” Bernard says. “It was so cool to see that last box loaded into the truck, and the truck drive away, because you know everything went to a good cause.”

During the process Bernard became passionate about helping Haiti recover, and started the organization I (Heart) Haiti to continue his efforts. In the past year he has visited Haiti twice to learn more about what the country needs – once with Williams, and once with a group from the Canadian Football League (where Bernard is continuing his football career).

And he decided on his next move, to build a school in Port-au-Prince that will teach arts and crafts to local children and adults. The idea is to do something physical that will help Haitians see a real change in their environment.

“The mood on the ground is still bad. Port-au-Prince still looks like a room that’s been tossed upside down,” Bernard says. “It’s going to help to do something Haitians can touch and see.”

Bernard plans to employ Haitians to build the school. He wants the teachers at his school to be Haitian, so that Haitians can educate themselves.

He already has access to the property he needs, but Bernard’s next big effort is to raise money for the school. He’s going to start this Saturday, with the I (Heart) Haiti festival at Gill Coliseum. The event includes live music from the band Root Down, local food vendors, a silent auction and beer garden.

“My goal is to get the school going and have people give to a positive foundation,” Bernard says.  “Helping Haiti is not going to be an overnight thing.”

Joining Bernard in the effort is the group Beavers without Borders, an organization started by alum Taylor Kavanaugh that brings former and current student athletes together on service trips. This past Spring Break, Beavers without Borders built a house for a Guatemalan family – Bernard was one of the 17 alums who went on the trip.

The festival will mark a new partnership between I (Heart) Haiti and Beavers without Borders. Bernard hopes the Haiti school will be the first of many that the groups build together.

Bernard, by the way, did get to meet his half-brother on his first trip to Haiti. They’d finally gotten in touch when Sebastian had called their father from a UN soldier’s phone. By the time Bernard was able to visit Haiti, Sebastian had a working phone. When Bernard called upon his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Sebastian came down the hill where he lived, and they met.

“It was surreal. It was a feeling I cannot describe. It felt so good and natural, because he was my brother,” Bernard says.

The only thing Bernard can’t seem to manage is to get Sebastian interested in American football. “It’s not happening,” Bernard says. “We brought him a football and he looked at it like it was crazy.”

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