“It’s for the kids,” Matt Damon’s famous line from Entourage could also be philanthropist Yolanda Berkowitz’s mantra. Wife of developer Jeff Berkowitz, Yolanda works tirelessly for two children-centric charitable organizations: Voices for Children and the United Way. As we speak she is planning a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with government officials to advocate the benefits of early education.
Yolanda was born in Cuba and left at the age of seven for Miami. But her family didn’t stay long. “There were so many exiles in Miami, competing for jobs and housing that my family decided to go to Chicago.” There, Berkowitz honed her English skills and absorbed Midwestern culture and values. But city life wasn’t easy and after a divorce, her mother decided to take the children back to Miami, which still had a small-town feel. “It’s very ironic, she moved us back in the late 70’s, for a quieter, safer life, and then came in the cocaine cowboys.”
Even though her husband did not ultimately join the board himself, she feels he was and remains instrumental in her charitable efforts.
She left Miami after a business opportunity and later marriage took her afar to Hong Kong and Vancouver. She lived in Hong Kong before the hand over and remembers it fondly. “Back then Hong Kong was filled with these great expats. They were rich, good looking and the place was buzzing with a great energy. It was a lot of fun.”
In an interesting parallel to her mother’s life, Yolanda divorced and returned to Miami to be with friends and family. It wasn’t long before she started dating Jeff, to whom she has been married 10 years.
She welcomed his family and children, and now grandchildren as her own. “I think because my family came from Cuba and left everything behind, it has allowed me to fill my world with new family. I was anchorless, and I had to create my own, new identity.”
In addition to meeting her husband, Yolanda had another lifechanging moment soon after moving to Miami. “It was 1995 and I read an op-ed in the Miami Herald about the need for advocacy for kids in court or Gaurdienship ad litem as it is called.” So Berkowitz called the number in the newspaper, took a 30-hour training and got involved. “I was very active and had 4-5 cases at a time, which requires you to go to meet with parents, schools and doctors. You are the eyes and ears of the court and report back what you have seen. It’s very important they are making life-changing decisions with this information,” she says.
Berkowitz did this independently for some time before getting involved with Voices for Children, an organization which works exclusively to provide Gaurdians ad litem for children.
“Pan Cortellas and Karen Agozi, the director solicited Jeff and me and they really wanted him. I told them the probably wouldn’t be able to get Jeff on the board, but they could get me!” Yolanda joined the board, then quickly the executive committee and eventually became one of the organization’s most vocal proponents. “Voices [for Children] is my baby. The impact makes the biggest difference with these kids.”
Even though her husband did not ultimately join the board himself, she feels he was and remains instrumental in her charitable efforts. “He gives me street cred. I have been able to build on his relationships and his reputation. I’ve been able to raise $200,000 for them on a regular basis. That’s 10% of their entire budget.”
She’s quick to point out that although funds are hugely important for Voices for Children, money isn’t all they need. The organization “needs volunteers desperately because you can’t pay to represent all the kids,” she says. “It costs too much money.” So she’s also trying to strengthen their volunteer model. “Really getting involved and active really feeds your intellectual life, your emotional life.”
Berkowitz is also very involved with United Way. So much so that Haute Living photographed her at United Way’s Center for Excellence in Early Education in Coral Gables. The facility is magnificent and has been designed to optimize education taking into consideration color, size and shape of classrooms. The place feels something like higher-learning campus for tykes, and its aim is to be a model for early education with classrooms for kids from 6 months to 5 years old. It is with the beneficial findings from this center, and ones like it all over the country that Yolanda will advocate for better early child education in Washington D.C., on her upcoming trip where she will serve as a lobbyist for early education.
Although Yolanda did not have any of her own, her life is full of children. Between Voices for Children, United Way and her grandchildren, on whom she dotes, her life is more than full. “You can’t look at what you don’t have in life because you spend all of your time looking at the negative.” And Yolanda has a lot to be thankful for.
But it’s not just her volunteer work that makes her lucky. Berkowitz counts some of Miami’s most interesting people as her closest friends, and allies and gets to regularly circulate with them. Sometimes she has big parties just for fun too. Last year, she and her husband had a joint birthday party at Neiman Marcus. The couple closed down the store and invited 200 of their closest friends including Dave Barry and Romero Britto.
The tireless philanthropist gets a break from her busy schedule when she heads up north for the summer to the couple’s 60–acre summer getaway in Maine for some peace and quiet. “It’s ten miles from the nearest traffic light,” she says wistfully. “I can really disconnect there.”
But when she gets back to the Magic City; it’s go, go, go. “I’d love to be home more, but I care about my community and about people who don’t have. The gala is one of the nicest in Miami and most importantly, everyone there knows why they are there.”
Despite all the work she does, sometimes Yolanda feels like doesn’t have a “real job.” “Nobody is paying me to get up at six o’clock in the morning to go to meetings. But I walk in the room and there are 50 other active, dynamic, influential, engaged individuals and I feel energized. I feel like I’m the lucky one to get to do this.”