GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Jay Berkes has a long road ahead of him, and he doesn't mind a bit.
Berkes, the 24-year-old manager of Rock Gardens Rafting and the Glenwood Canyon Resort, is embarking on the Haiti 100, a 45-day solo cycling trip from Glenwood Springs to New York City, on Oct. 10. He aspires to ride 100 miles a day every day he's not giving speeches and presentations, crossing the country by bicycle to raise $50,000 in support of a grade school in rural Haiti affected by the latest natural disaster to hit the country. His trip will total somewhere around 2,600 miles.
"They were attempting to rebuild stuff after the 2010 earthquake," he said. "Another earthquake just obliterated what they had done."
As a certified emergency medical technician, Berkes was last in Haiti in early October 2011, working in a medical clinic to help the sick, injured and women giving birth.
"The amount of need there is still really high," he said. "It's just such a different situation."
Berkes was motivated to help in Haiti after working as an EMT in the emergency room at a hospital in New Orleans. He said it was not uncommon to work in areas of Haiti without electricity and proper sanitary conditions for health care.
Along with providing much-needed health care assistance, Berkes worked at a struggling grade school, part of H.E.L.P. Incorporated, a community-based medical and educational organization. Berkes said H.E.L.P. has been suffering since the 2010 earthquake due to subsequent smaller earthquakes and the recent hurricanes. For an organization that depends on donors, a natural disaster (or three) can deplete the donation pool faster than usual, and it's tough to replenish it. Right now, the lack of funds - and influx of new students - means the school has shut down. Hopefully, it's temporary, Berkes said, because it provides students their one meal a day, medications and a daily vitamin.
"For the population H.E.L.P. Inc. serves, this means school children between the ages of 5-15 will not be attending classes for the 2012-2013 school year," he said. "They are working hard to get school open for kids they do have."
Berkes said he left his work with H.E.L.P. in 2011 feeling "really proud to be working with them," he said, adding that the director chooses staff that not only delivers a product, but understands the community it serves - sometimes, because they're a part of it. He worked for other organizations down there, and though he says they're all contributing, he was particularly impressed by H.E.L.P.
Berkes' Haiti 100 ride will raise funds, as well as awareness, for the continuing need in the Republic of Haiti.
"In riding my bike from here to New York City, my goal is to ride 100 miles a day and talk with a lot of churches, universities and nonprofits, doing presentations," Berkes said. "The bicycle ride, the talks, the point is to get the school operational again. And increase exposure to universal primary education in places like Haiti."
Berkes is already getting questions from potential supporters, who ask why they should help a small school in a third-world country. His response is that education is the foundation for pulling a place like Haiti out of third-world status.
"My goal on this speaking tour is (to shed light on) how important education is to building up a country and a thriving economy," he said. "It's about building a generation of children who are socially responsible individuals, respectable and responsible for what their community can be. Haiti is very fractured on that level."
Berkes, who received his undergraduate degree from Illinois State University in biology and molecular genetics, plans to revisit his alma mater as well as other schools in the area. The past three years has been a break before medical school, which he filled with humanitarian work and summers as a raft guide and manager.
"I'm applying for school now," he said. "It's always been kind of my game plan to become a doctor."
During his 45-day bike ride, Berkes will also revisit his memories of a biking accident.
"Ironically enough, this is the longest I will have gone on my bike. I haven't been on my bike in a long time," he said. "In college, I got hit by a car and shattered my wrist. I actually have an underlying fear associated with riding I'll be addressing."
Berkes' halfway point of the trip will be his hometown of Danville, Ill., where he will visit his parents.
"They think I'm crazy but they support it," he said. "I think I've desensitized them enough over the last four or five years that they're OK with it."
He has other motivation to pedal the bike, too. The Appalachian Mountains will likely be snowy and icy when he arrives there, so he wants to push ahead and get through the eastern barrier as early as he can. He also has a concert in Kansas City he wants to attend, Balmorhea, on Oct. 19.
Support from parents, friends, family and resort owners Kevin and Kathy Schneider will help Berkes hit his goal of raising $50,000 for the school in Haiti he loves.
"That will be a really cool Christmas present for the school and the school children," he said.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, the resort will send off Berkes with the Gear Up for Haiti fundraising event from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with 100 percent of the proceeds from activity participation going to support the school.
"I'm completely self-supported on this trip, so it's going to be an exciting day," he said. "The owners here have been really, really generous. Without these emergency funds, H.E.L.P. Inc. will not be able to regain the self-sustaining model of service provision it has maintained for over 50,000 impoverished Haitians."
- Janice Kurbjun contributed to this story.