Heather Bernardo believes in reaching out to help meet the needs of others. Her ability to understand and share in the emotions and experiences of other people makes her gift of giving easier to implement.
Bernardo helped start the outreach initiative Into the Mouths of Babes in 2011. First begun at Mellichamp Elementary School in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, the initiative provided food for needy students over the weekend.
After a similiar district-wide initiative, Filling Station, was implemented in April 2016 in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, Bernardo combined her efforts with the district's.
As a result, the two initiatives began working together and now serve more than 1,000 children throughout OCSD5 with the support of businesses and individuals.
It is the 51-year-old Bernardo's ability to be sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others, particularly toward those who are less fortunate, that has earned her the designation as the exemplification of empathy as part of the Orangeburg County Community of Character initiative.
Bernardo said she was grateful for the honor and also shocked by it.
“I was shocked and humbled. I felt undeserving, but I was very humbled by it,” she said.
What does empathy mean to her?
“Putting yourself in someone else’s place and trying to truly understand what they’re going through. You can see a person and say, ‘They don’t work. What are they doing?’ We can always look at the negative part, but we have no idea what people go through.
"We're angry about anybody who cuts us off in the road, but you don’t know what the person is going through. You have to give grace to everybody and everything," Bernardo said.
The Connecticut native has lived in Orangeburg for the past 30 years and considers her outreach work a blessing.
“It means 1,000 children a week in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5 have snacks and food to bring home on the weekend to eat at their choosing. It's always been consistent. We haven't missed a single week," she said.
Bernardo has the dedicated support of individuals, including Karen Tourville, Angela Burroughs and Missy Cain, who help make the effort to provide children with weekend meals and snacks a success.
"We have community members that give. There were times when Karen and I were looking at each other thinking, 'How in the world are we gonna make 150 bags this week? We don't have any food.' ... And food would just appear. It's a God thing," Bernardo said.
She recalled how she jumped at the opportunity to assist the late OCSD5 Homeless Coordinator Cindy Clark with the district-wide Filling Station initiative.
"When Cindy Clark started the Filling Station in April 2016, she called me and said, 'This is a really big job. Will you help?' And I said, 'Absolutely.' She knew she was sick at the time, too, and wanted the mission to continue. So she and I worked together until she died," Bernardo said.
She added, "We just serve the child and try to put ourselves in their place. God put us here to love each other, and the only way you can love everybody is to have empathy for people. That was his greatest command: Go out and love."
Bernardo attributes her empathetic nature and giving spirit to her parents, Art and Kay Tolles of Orangeburg.
"My father is the most giving person that I know. He would literally give the shirt off his back, and has done it many times. And with my mom, all you have to do is start a sentence with a question and she's on board," she said.
"And they've been on board with my program. They're just people to look up to. Without a doubt, they're good people."
Having a brother and three sisters, Bernardo said she has had plenty of lessons on sharing.
"My mom had all of us in five years, and I was the middle child. So you have to share, and sometimes you have to give up something for a family member. It was instilled in me to be a giver, and I'm very blessed to be able to say that. I'm not the biggest giver ever, but I do try my hardest," she said.
She and her husband, Wally, are the parents of five children, all of whom she has tried to instill with good character.
"Our two oldest boys are adopted. They came from nothing, and we tried to instill in them that the world doesn't owe you anything. You need to get out there. Don't turn around and look back; you need to look forward and make your future what you want it to be," Bernardo said.
"The two older ones are married and out of the house. My three that are still in the home ... have seen what I do over the years. They see that I try to give and when it's Christmastime, it's not about our family. It's about helping other families," she said.
She said her outreach efforts have become a family affair among her three youngest children.
"They've always been there to help me with all the bags when we were making them in my dining room. We've made them in the living room. It's definitely been a family thing, and I would not have ever been able to do that without them and Karen Tourville. That's for sure," Bernardo said.
She lauded the OCCOC for its efforts to spread good character throughout the community.
"I think it's an honor to be nominated and an honor to be considered to have character. I think when businesses and schools honor teachers and employees with a character award, it kind of makes you want to live up to that character," Bernardo said.
"None of us live up to it 100 percent ... (but) it's recognition that somebody sees that you're a good person. And then it goes on from there," she said. "When one person does something nice for someone, it trickles down."
Individuals interested in nominating a Citizen of the Month can visit the OCCOC website at www.orangeburgcharacter.com.
Bernardo recognized for empathy by Orangeburg County Community of Character
December 2, 2018 Times and Democrat article (reprinted with permission)
Article by DIONNE GLEATON T&D Staff Writer