DANVILLE — Somewhere in Kansas, night had fallen, and Jay Berkes was still pedaling his bicycle, weary from the 80 miles he had already logged. He wanted to stop.
But he thought of the kids at the school in Haiti. If he could keep pedaling and log another 100-mile day, he would raise even more money for the kids in Croix-De-Bouquets, Haiti, where he spent several months teaching English and volunteering at a medical clinic. He pushed on that night and reached his 100-mile goal.
"It's a great motivating factor," said Berkes, referring to the children in Haiti and donation pledges contingent upon him logging 100 miles per day in his 2,600-mile journey.
A 2006 graduate of Schlarman High School in Danville, Berkes launched last month "The Haiti 100" bicycle challenge to ride from Colorado to New York City, logging as many 100-mile days as possible along the way while raising money and awareness for humanitarian efforts in Haiti.
This past week, Berkes took a break from his cross-country adventure, stopping in his hometown of Danville and enjoying home cooking and sleeping in a bed again at his parents' house. On Monday, he'll climb back on the bike for the second half of his trek to New York.
After graduating from Illinois State University, Berkes wanted to gain an "extra-curricular education" before enrolling in medical school. He was interested in humanitarian work overseas and during an internship in a hospital in New Orleans, Berkes met two doctors who had volunteered in Haiti. The more he learned about the Caribbean country devastated in 2010 by an earthquake, the more he thought it was the place for him.
After reading a newspaper article about Haitian-born doctor Michel-Henry Brutus' efforts to meet the medical and educational needs of people in the area of Croix-De-Bouquets through the organization H.E.L.P. Inc., Berkes contacted Brutus, sent his resume and asked if he could come volunteer. Brutus accepted the help, and Berkes volunteered there from October 2011 through May, teaching physical education and English at the school and volunteering in the field with doctors from the clinic.
"It was a great learning experience," Berkes said. He went there for his own educational pursuits, he said, but left with a passion for the people, especially the children, and a desire to help them more. It's a struggle for families to send their kids to a school, he said, and the LeFoyer school is so necessary, because it's affordable and a good curriculum with good teachers.
Berkes left Haiti in May, returning to the United States to earn more money at his regular summer job as a river guide in Colorado. While there, he learned that the five-room school in Haiti with 350 kids registered was shut down by hurricane damage. With plans to return to Haiti this fall, Berkes wanted a quick way to raise money for the school before his return. He decided a cross-country bike trip was the way to go — even though he's not a biker and had no bicycle.
The owner of the river guide company unexpectedly paid for the Trek 520 touring bike he had ordered, and Berkes was "pumped." On Oct. 11, he pedaled away from Glenwood Springs with whatever he could fit in two bicycle saddlebags and a backpack.
So far, he's pedaled about 1,200 miles, burned 35,000 calories, he figures, and logged 13 100-mile days out of the 15 he has been riding. He memorizes his directions in his head and rides a lot at night with flashers and sleeps in a sleeping bag in parks or wherever he can find public land. He eats a lot of candy, he said, and trail mix, protein bars and chocolate milk.
One night in Kansas during a six-day, 500-mile stretch, he stopped next to a grove of trees that he thought was a park, climbed into his sleeping bag and awoke to a man with a pitch fork standing over him, nudging him with his foot and asking what he was doing. Berkes said it took a couple minutes to shake off his deep sleep and explain why he was sleeping in what turned out to be the man's front yard. The farmer invited Berkes into his home where he and his wife fixed him a big breakfast before sending him on his way.
"I've had nothing but the ultimate level of kindness," Berkes said.
But Mother Nature hasn't been so kind.
"The weather has been horrible," said Berkes, who battled snow and ice in Colorado and wind, cold and rain farther east. He has been caught in three storms. His sister, Celia Berkes, of Danville, checks on him regularly by cellphone and tries to keep him abreast of the weather in addition to scheduling his speaking engagements along the way. Though traveling light, he has dress pants, button-down shirt and tie for presentations. The trick is folding them without getting them too wrinkled, he said.
A big part of his goal is raising awareness about Haiti as well as driving people to his website where they can donate or pledge money toward his efforts. He carries a laptop with him to update his site almost daily. Between Glenwood Springs, Colo., and Danville, Berkes has made five presentations, mostly at schools or colleges. During his week break in Danville, he did an all-school assembly at Schlarman, spoke to several classes at Danville High School and spent Friday in Kankakee doing presentations.
He has raised $5,000 so far and hopes to triple that by the end. He said the $5,000 is wonderful and will get the school through another year of operation, and tripling that total would mean three years.
Berkes planned to return to Haiti and surprise everyone with the money he has raised, but one of the teachers at the school saw his website. Berkes said the teacher sent him a picture of the kids with a sign that says, "Go Jay Go." He said the kids are following his progress, accessing the website through the teacher's smart phone.
"It's a great motivator," said Berkes, who's growing more impatient for Monday and his journey to resume.
His mom, Suzie Berkes, said she and her husband, Jim, are very proud of their son and his motives behind this challenge.
"He really does want to improve the education of the kids he got to know so well," said Berkes who worries about her son on his cross-country trek.
She said they have come to an understanding that Jay doesn't tell her anything serious until after it happens. She said she trusts her son and his strength and wisdom in what he's doing, but it's random things that he has no control over that worry her most.
"But I also know that he's doing something he wants to do, something that he believes in," she said. "And I understand his reason for biking. It's part the physical challenge and emotional challenge of it, but it's also a way for him to put all that energy of caring into something."
The Haiti 100
For more information about Jay Berkes' bicycle challenge or donate toward his mission to help a school in Haiti, go to his website at Haiti100.com