Farmington Hills resident starts youth transition shelter in Haiti

By: Mark Vest | Farmington Press | Published June 5, 2023

 After adopting her daughter, Helen-Widma, from an orphanage in Haiti, Farmington Hills resident Jennifer Berkemeier was inspired to open a youth transition shelter.

After adopting her daughter, Helen-Widma, from an orphanage in Haiti, Farmington Hills resident Jennifer Berkemeier was inspired to open a youth transition shelter.

Photo provided by Jennifer Berkemeier


FARMINGTON HILLS — More than 10 years ago, Farmington Hills resident Jennifer Berkemeier adopted a 4-year-old girl from Haiti.

Berkemeier adopted her daughter, Helen-Widma, from an orphanage in Haiti.

For as much as making that decision enhanced Berkemeier’s life, there was still a nagging thought.

“Having my daughter, looking at her, and realizing how many, many, many others she left behind in the orphanage, how many orphanages there are in Haiti, how many kids are out, literally, fending for themselves in the streets of Haiti,” Berkemeier said. “I knew I had to help children.”

The path for how to help became clear after she read an article about 100 children living in a welcome center in Haiti.

With no beds to sleep on, the children slept on floors.

Reading that article helped inspire Berkemeier to open a youth transition shelter in Haiti.

More than two years ago, she started the FEJI Youth Transition Home, which offers food, clothes, safety, education and counseling to youth while searching for suitable family situations for them in conjunction with Haitian social services.

The nonprofit youth transition shelter currently holds about a dozen children ranging in age from 6 to 16.

Berkemeier said that the “beautiful” home is a former school, and each child shares a room.

She said that the children also get medical checkups and have access to counseling.

“Those kids have been placed there by Haitian social services and first were identified as critically vulnerable children and, essentially, they’re homeless,” Berkemeier said. “They get access to life opportunities and mentoring, and eventually, the goal with all of our children is to place them back into a loving home. … If there’s no family available, then they’re found, like, a foster home situation. Once they’re ready, stable, and on a solid path towards independence and stability, then they’re placed in a home where they can begin to contribute back to society.”

The transition shelter provides a form of escape for the children that most people cannot relate to.

“When they are living in the street they are so vulnerable to gang indoctrination, violence against women, human traffickers,” Berkemeier said. “The criminal elements in Haiti and any developing country — they do not care that these kids are 6, 7 and 8. … We have a great staff who works there, who works with them. One of the things that they experience there that they haven’t, probably in a long time, is safety, security (and) stability.”

Berkemeier is a sales manager at Huntington Place in Detroit, where she has worked approximately 11 years. She has been a resident of Farmington Hills for more than 20 years and attended Bloomfield Hills Schools.

Berkemeier works with a volunteer board. Including her, she said that there are seven people on the board.

“We don’t have any staff. No one’s paid,” she said. “We’re all volunteers. That’s here locally, and then the staff at the home, there’s five full-time staff people, all Haitian. I send them a monthly small stipend that you consider, I guess, a salary.”

Kelly Kaneko is one of Berkemeier’s co-workers.

After the nonprofit was started, she volunteered to be a board member.

“It’s been really inspiring and heartwarming for me,” Kaneko said. “I know that we’re small, but you can see it does make a difference because all of the children that we work with probably wouldn’t have a home or wouldn’t have as easy of a time right now, looking at their conditions and what’s happening. We make a small difference, but it is really mighty, and these children have somewhere safe to be.”

Berkemeier estimated that there are 300,000 homeless children at any given time in Haiti. “Kids are orphaned in Haiti for any number of reasons,” she said.

Their circumstances are all the more challenging given the current environment they are growing up in.

“We have to be very careful right now because of the ongoing violence and danger that has permeated everywhere, especially primarily in the capital of Haiti,” Berkemeier said. “We can’t get the kids off the grounds that much, so they’re pretty much confined there except when they go to school and back.”

Kaneko shared what is perhaps one of the biggest draws of the nonprofit.

“One hundred percent of our donations go directly to our charity,” she said. “We don’t take any money in. … A hundred percent of dollars that are given go right to it, so it’s a direct impact.”

Berkemeier doesn’t know the exact size of the shelter, but she said that there is enough room to hold up to 40 kids, with the only limitation being funds.

“Fundraising for monthly donors is our biggest need and our biggest challenge,” she said. “Whenever I get overwhelmed with the need and the challenges I just have to look at a picture of some of the kids at our home and see the smiles on their faces. Every now and then, our directors will have them make a little video, and they’re telling us, ‘Thank you.’ Anything like that, I just have to look at the pictures of the kids and know that what we are doing is literally life-changing.”

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