Seen teaching a Tanzanian boy how to read and write during his recent trip to Africa, Castro resident Jake Berkowitz hosts a May 22 fundraiser for the African nation at the San Mateo Elks Lodge.
Jake Berkowitz admits
getting too caught up in material possessions. Like many gay men he knows,
Berkowitz became more concerned about designer labels and keeping up
appearances than making a positive impact on the world. That started to change when
the Castro resident decided to make a recent trip to Africa.
Looking to escape the
life he created for himself here, Berkowitz traveled the globe to volunteer for
two weeks with Bay Area nonprofit Tanzania Health & Education Mission (THE Mission). Soon his
planned two-week stay in the East African country turned into two months,
including several weeks teaching children in a rural village to read and write.
Since returning to
Berkowitz has stayed dedicated to the country he says positively and
permanently altered his life. May 22, he hosts a dinner and silent/live auction
fundraiser for THE Mission
at the San Mateo Elks Lodge. The $65 tickets offer opportunities to bid on
incredible getaways to Hawaii, Tahoe or a
five-star San Francisco
With all proceeds
going directly to Africa, Berkowitz says
participants can change the lives of countless children â€“ and possibly the
world. In this weekâ€™s Bay Times â€śSpotlight,â€ť
he describes his experience on the Dark Continent, the lessons he learned and
why a donation to Africa helps advance LGBT
(Bay TImes) What started your involvement in Africa?
(Jake) I was in a
relationship with someone who was really wealthy, and when that relationship
came to an end, I had a chance to take a look at my life, the material things
and what had become important to me. I wanted to get away from that and
consider a return to earth and reality. A friend told me about a trip she took
how she had seen poverty like sheâ€™d never known. She said pictures or words
couldnâ€™t describe it. It has to be experienced first hand to understand. That
got the gears spinning. For her it had been India,
for me I knew it was Africa. A friend of a
friend had gone to East Africa four years ago, been really affected by it and
started this nonprofit Tanzania Health & Education Mission (THE Mission).
We totally hit it off. Our personalities meshed really well. I really liked the
work they were doing and how they were going about doing it. I loved the fact
that they invited me to go along with them for two weeks.
How long were you in Africa?
I was in Africa a little over two months. I planned to go with
Tanzania Health & Education Mission for two weeks, take a one week safari,
then come home. I was so affected and moved by my experience there, the
second-to-last day before they were about to leave, I met some people over
there who had a school. I talked to them about volunteering maybe next time I
came. They pretty much convinced me to stay. They gave me free room and board.
After my safari, I came back and worked as a teacher with them.
What affected you most?
We were in a small,
rural village. It was very remote. They had enough money to sponsor five kids
to go to school. There were eight students who wanted sponsored. Since all
qualified on need, we were going to base it on academic achievements. We looked
at grades and pretty much made the decisions, but we wanted to meet the
students. It was my first real contact with African people directly, not those
used to contact with tourists. We were really happy about the ones we decided
to sponsor, but there were two we decided not to sponsor. One had a real affect
on me. His father is a hardcore alcoholic, abuses the kids and wife. Thereâ€™s no
such thing there as a Department of Family Services. When I spoke to the
teachers about getting him out of the home, their response was â€śWhy would we
take him out of the home when he has two parents who are alive?â€ť I was affected
by that. It becomes something very different when youâ€™re not just looking at a piece
of paper with a name and list of grades, when itâ€™s a living, breathing human
being sitting across from you who wants to go to school. Obviously he wanted to
learn, but he wanted to go to school because itâ€™s his only path to safety,
physical safety. I ended up sponsoring him myself. It definitely changed me. A
year-and-a-half ago, my biggest struggle was how I was going to get a new pair
of Gucci shoes. When you see something like that, it really has an impact.
With so many causes and events facing our community, why
should people support something like this?
I donâ€™t want to turn
one cause against another. The causes here are very important to me.What I didnâ€™t realize before, though, is the
only reason I have three square meals a day, a roof over my head, paved roads,
internet connections that work, showers with hot water, water thatâ€™s not full
of typhoid is because of where I was born. It has nothing to do with anything
else. You have human beings who, just because of where they were born, a lot of
them will die from malaria and they donâ€™t have clean water, if they have water
at all. One of the reasons I am so excited to be involved over there is because
I have so many friends involved in fundraising. When you look at fundraising
for HIV research, youâ€™re talking about millions and millions of dollars. When
you give $100 to AIDS research, the reality for me is that $100 isnâ€™t really
going to do that much. It was really exciting to be in Africa
where for $300-500, you can make a difference in one kidâ€™s life for 12 months.
It gives him a place to live, three meals a day and a full education â€“ for a year. It takes so little to make a
visible difference over there.
Why should LGBT people get involved in a region which has
recently made headlines for legislation imposing the death penalty for gays?
I really saw
first-hand how things are there for women, for gays, for any minority or
targeted group like that because of lack of education. I really believe in my
heart and soul, if we can get at least half of the population educated to a
high school level, people will make different decisions. They are a democratic
is a democratic nation, but these people are uneducated and pressured by
religious leaders to vote what they did. Look at a country just south of Uganda, Rwanda, where people are mostly
educated. Since the genocide, Rwanda
has worked hard to get people educated. They had the same election in Rwanda, and the
Rwandan people voted in an overwhelming majority not to impose the death penalty for gay people. Do I feel unsafe
when Iâ€™m there? Yes, slightly, but I really believe strongly that if we can
just educate people, education provides a safer space for everyone. It provides
a safer space for women. It provides a safer space for gays. It provides a
safer space for people to practice their religion. When people are uneducated,
it allows them to be influenced by bullyish leaders. I think it speaks to our
community. I think it speaks to gay rights.