By Thomas Gerbasi
This is not a boxing story. If you came here looking for some insight into the future boxing plans of unbeaten WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you want to hear about a boxer in a different kind of fight, read on, because that’s where we’re headed, and, truth be told, this journey means a lot more than what happens in the ring, and as Berto points out, “It all works in a circle.”
What the 26-year old means is that boxing has been his ticket to the big time, the place that allows him to know all the cool people, go to all the cool parties, and have legions of fans follow his every move on Twitter. But unlike other athletes in his position, he also knows that his current status allows him to have a voice that transcends beyond boxing websites and newspaper and internet gossip columns. Most won’t take the opportunity to use that voice – Berto has.
“I truly believe this is my purpose to go into the ring and be the best that I can, and at the same time use that platform to do so much outside the ring and try to raise the bar,” he said.
As documented in this space in April, just before Berto defended his title for the fourth time with an eighth round TKO of Puerto Rico’s Carlos Quintana, the Winter Haven, Florida resident created “The Berto Dynasty Foundation” to raise money for relief efforts in Haiti after the devastating earthquake that hit the country in January, and last week in New York City, a function was held to officially launch the foundation’s efforts, which are spanning beyond just Haiti.
“Right now we’re focused on Haitian relief efforts, but we’re also working with the Boys and Girls clubs, which I grew up in since I was five years old and that have definitely been very significant for me growing up, and also focusing on sickle cell anemia because I have a sister who suffers from that disease. So pretty much all the things that we’re touching on are things that are very dear to me and that have definitely affected my personal life.”
In and of itself, Berto’s decision to give back to the community both here and abroad is an admirable act. It’s also something many high-profile athletes and celebrities choose to do, but in a lot of cases, what such an endeavor entails is lending his or her name to a foundation, choosing a cause, and writing a check. That’s fine, especially if the foundations help others in need, but you have to respect those who actually roll up their sleeves and get involved like Berto has a little more.
“I know how it is, being a young kid and admiring these stars that you’ve seen on TV, and I remember seeing them and meeting them when I was young at the Boys Club,” he recalls. “I knew what kind of affect that had on me. So I wanted to do the same. I don’t just want to talk about it or write the checks, I want to present the checks personally if I can, I want to be hands on, and that’s the type of person I am. I want things to go the way that I really want them to go. Even though I have a nice team around me that works for me, I really want to be hands on and make sure things go the way I want them to go. That’s why I go to Haiti, that’s why I go to the Boys’ clubs and attend these meetings, to make sure things are being handled the way I want them to be handled.”
Berto’s most recent trip to Haiti, which he represented in the 2004 Olympics, came before the Quintana fight and after the earthquake hit. Deeply affected by the devastation, Berto was forced to pull out of what would have been a career-defining fight against Shane Mosley in January, and instead focused on lending a hand. His efforts, like those of many, made the news for a few weeks, but like anything in this age, once a story is off the front page, it’s forgotten, and Berto is clear when he says that there is still much to be done to get the country back on its feet.
“Not too much has changed,” he said. “A lot of people are still coming forward trying to help, but it fell off a lot in the media aspect and it’s not on the tip of everybody’s tongue like it was and it has been forgotten at some point. Everything there is in slow motion right now. People are trying to help completely remove the rubble, completely remove the bodies from the rubble, and there’s so much that just needs to be done. And it’s up to people like myself and others to keep that awareness up.”
And as he points out, it’s not like Haiti was doing well before the quake hit, something he saw in his visits there before January of 2010.
“A lot of people don’t seem to understand that Haiti was in a tough situation before the earthquake even happened,” he said. “So a lot of the things that I’m hearing and that they’re discovering are not surprising to me because when I went to Haiti before the earthquake I saw the situation with the economy, the government, the living arrangements there, and just the way everything looked. I went to two of the villages, I spoke to the kids, I went to the high schools, and all the things they’re asking for now, they’ve been asking for.”
The biggest problem – besides cleaning up from the quake – is the illiteracy rate in the country among children. At last weekend’s launch event, Berto’s agent, Jamie Fritz, spelled out the numbers:
“The statistics are staggering,” said Fritz. “In Haiti every year, 500,000 children cannot attend school. There are currently close to two million children with no ability to attend school post earthquake. These kids aren’t even given a chance. They don’t even have an opportunity to get an education. 43% of children in Haiti are illiterate. 70% adults living in farmlands are illiterate. Only 1.2% of High school graduates pursue higher education.”
“I’ve had kids call me, email me and they’re very intelligent kids,” said Berto. “They want to know any type of way of how they can get to these colleges and they’ve been doing their research. They just want a chance to be able to have the same opportunities we have.”
In response, Berto’s foundation is teaming up with the Haiti Ecole initiative to build schools throughout Haiti, with the goal to reach 100,000 students within the first two years.
It’s an admirable battle, and one Berto plans to win, just like he has 26 times in his professional career. And maybe, just maybe, he will be the one opening the door and making it safe for other high-profile fighters to follow his lead.
“I’m gonna set the standard because people look at fighters and they always have the same perception – they don’t think we’re educated, they just think we’re brutes that are beating the hell out of each other,” he said. “But at the same time, they need to realize that we’re real people, we have real feelings, and we have concerns and issues that we have to deal with. In a situation like this, I’ve been put on such a platform that I’m gonna do everything I can to put out that positive message, bring that awareness, and help.”