Head start

Posted Jun 6, 2014

The RUN GIO Foundation makes its Cincinnati debut Saturday, but it's been 22 years in the making.

The RUN GIO Foundation gets a foothold in Cincinnati at Saturday's bowling event with MVP Kids.

The Bernards have been running, it seems, ever since Yvens Bernard, a member of the Haitian national soccer team, dashed home from his club team in Mexico nearly 30 years ago to be by his wife’s Josette’s side for the arrival of their first born, Yvenson.

Their second son, Giovani, has been on the move ever since the Bengals took him in the second round last year. After racing to a season that made him a NFL Rookie of the Year finalist, this spring he has been ping-ponging around the voluntary workouts as the starting running back and renewing his playful practice feud with Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict while looking as slippery as ever.

 This week has screeched to the run-up of the RUN GIO Foundation’s first event in the Cincinnati community, capping, in a way, what his older brother calls a dizzying “rags-to-riches-to-rags,” race.

On Saturday at Princeton Bowl from noon to three, Bernard teams with Most Valuable Kids of Greater Cincinnati, a program that provides extra-curricular programs and incentives to more than 100,000 at-risk children. He’ll call in some of his teammates to give a day of activities highlighted by bowling, face painting, autographs and lunch to kids that rarely get any of it.

“I wouldn’t be here without the people around me,” Bernard says. “If you have good people around you, that’s what is going to hold you up.”

Bernard is looking to run where no one else has before. After visiting Port-au-Prince near the U.S. embassy in his homeland this offseason to see the schoolhouse he and Yvenson have made in his mother’s name, he’s dreaming of the day he can bring running water to what is now a shack they hope will sprout into a building that will be a preschool during the week and a YMCA on weekends.

“There’s so much more that can be done that I want to be able to do,” says Bernard of a spot that also has room for a courtyard and soccer field. “They don’t have electricity. They have power lines up, but there’s nothing leading to the little building, so they can only use it during the day. They don’t have a well. They can’t get any water. Those are two primary things I really want to get done. Obviously, they need to have a bathroom and they don’t even have that.

“Nothing happens overnight. It’s not that it’s a lot of money. You just have to find the right people that are going to do the job that just aren’t going to steal the money.”

Maybe that’s why when he grew up with his father struggling to get their next meal in the grim nooks and crannies of Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale; it didn’t seem all that bad. The apartment where their ceiling sagged because the toilet upstairs overflowed. The houses they quietly had to leave when they couldn’t meet the rent.

When he was a little kid and his mother was still alive and life was good, he went to Haiti every summer and he couldn’t miss the mind-numbing poverty. So even though it was bad later in his native America, “We had running water. We had a roof over our heads that we could call home and a lot of people don’t have that.”

He’d like his foundation to eventually run over to the issue of single parents. His father did the best he could and for a while it still wasn’t enough. When Josette died of thyroid cancer, Yvenson was getting ready to finish a high school football career that would take him to Oregon State, Gio was just seven watching his mother slump to the floor when she opened the refrigerator, and Yvens was lost.

“She was his right hand. They ran the business together,” Yvenson says. “When she was gone, everything fell apart.”

Soon there would be no more cars and no more house and the dry-cleaning business would be gone.

“He was trying to be everywhere,” Giovani Bernard says. “Get the kids to school; get the kids to football practice. Make dinner. Go to work. It was just too much.”

But there was that support group, the kind of people Bernard wants to cultivate for the kids he’ll see Saturday. The kind of people he knows saved him. People he talks about like Colleen Wilson, the mother of his best friend T.J. at Addison Mizner Elementary and his teammate on the baseball team Boca Jets.

It began innocently enough at nine years old. He was over the house riding bikes and he asked, “Hey Mrs. Wilson, my dad’s working. Can I get a ride to practice?”

“He’s my third son,” says Colleen Wilson, who has two. “He ended up staying three or four nights a week for years. We knew right then he’d be a success. He was so driven. He was such a staple. I never had to get on him about anything.”

But the Colleen Wilsons of the world are the staples for kids like Giovani Bernard.

“It’s our faith,’ she says. “When you see a kid in need, they’re so innocent with the world crumbling around them.”

T.J. had his 22nd birthday Friday and Gio texted best wishes, Colleen heard through the grapevine. When the kids were growing up, Wilson worked in public relations and she would joke with Gio, “Now you have to practice that autograph,” and he’ll be signing plenty on Saturday for the kids he says “I can relate to.”

“Believe me,” Colleen Wilson says, “he’ll do great things in that community.”

But the at-risk kid helping at-risk kids still can’t run as fast as his father, especially now that he’s back on his feet. After a string of jobs that didn’t work out, Yvens got back in the dry cleaning business when Gio was in college and made another successful run. Just recently the name changed from Regal Cleaners to Bernard Cleaners.

But what hasn’t changed are the endless hours. He’s up at 3 a.m., in the door at 4 a.m.., and closes up around 10. Every day. Sundays. Even though he’s got two other people working with him and a son that has a rather high-paying job.

“It’s my business,’ he says. “I want to open it. I want to close it.”

Yvens was all set to fly to Yvenson’s wedding last year, but he called to tell his son he had to work and he missed the flight.

“He told us he had to fulfill an order for a customer for Sunday and that he’d just catch the next flight,” Yvenson says. “We had to tell him it didn’t work that way. That you have to call and re-schedule. He got there about eight hours before the wedding.”

So last season Yvenson bought his dad a big TV and installed it in the cleaners because he knew that was the only way he’d ever see Giovani play.

“If not, he’d only ever see the occasional Monday night or Thursday night game,” Yvenson says.

This is, of course, no shock.

 “He’s always been like this,” Giovani Bernard says. “I talk to my uncles, I talk to my aunts, I talk to people who know my dad. I always try to figure out stories about my dad when we were younger because I never really paid attention.

“He never wanted to take anything from anybody. He never wanted to be hand-fed. All he wanted was to be able to provide for himself and his kids and that was it….He’ll never stop working.”

At 54, Yvens has shown no signs of it. Even though Gio just bought a condo where he’s on the first floor, Yvenson and his wife are on the second floor and Gio’s on the third floor. But Yvenson and family are soon headed back to Oregon State, where he’ll be a graduate assistant this season.

“I have to put my own food on the table,’ Yvens says.

When he hears that Gio is thinking about a program for single-parent families, he says, “That’s a blessing for him. God would be very happy with him. It’s important that you be there day and night for (your kids). You’ve just got to be there. They love that.”

RUN GIO goes to the start line Saturday, but his people have given him a head start.


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