We wanted to share Jeri's story because to know her is to love her. The following is the acceptance speech she made at her Alma mater, Berea College, where she received their 2018 Service Award.
Jeri Baker accepting the 2018 Service Award from Berea President, Lyle Roelofs.
"It is a great honor to be here at Berea College and with Berea people again. As a student here, Berea not only gave me the education I needed to succeed in life, but a motto to serve as a guide: “God has made of one blood all the people of the earth.” As we know, that’s been Berea’s motto since 1855, and it is embodied in the lives of the students, who carry it with them as they help people who have never heard of Berea and maybe never will."
"I would like to share a couple of memories of my time here at Berea and then offer some examples of how Berea’s motto led me in life AND how the teachings I received here created ripple effects that impacted thousands of people."
"I first came here at the age of 15 after both my parents had died. I was a frightened teenager, with no money, who had never been outside Appalachia. I was facing the world for the first time—alone."
"I came to the Foundation school. The teachers tested me immediately so they could place me into appropriate classes. When classes started, I noticed there were two types of text books being handed out, the regular text books and others designed for lower level students."
"I was scared to death that the testing was going to find me and my previous education lacking and I would be given the low-level books. In those days, “hillbillies” were considered ignorant people and I knew that. I didn’t realize then that most of the students at Berea were “hillbillies.” I wanted to feel like I was in the right place for me. I’ll never forget how relieved I was when they handed me a regular textbook."
Jeri is flanked by her college roommate, Linda Sanford and her husband Chuck.
"In the ensuing months, Berea made it clear to me, and to all of us “hillbillies”, that no matter what level book we received, they respected our heritage and that we were people worthy of esteem."
"I remember my first English teacher here, Ms. Scribner, who told us, “When you leave this school, you will take with you your beautiful mountain accent but you will use it to speak proper English.” She was a determined woman and she wanted us to be accepted anywhere in this world, among any people. Not looked upon as ignorant, but as educated. …… That was an intensive class!"
"My second memory is of the care that was provided to me. When I was lonely and in tears, I knew I could go to my counselor. She hugged me. She sat and talked with me. She reassured me that I was among people who cared for me, and that if I had needs, they would be met."
"She and all the people here embodied the Berea Motto, which is inclusive and accepting of all people and respectful of their difference."
"Berea’s motto puts forth a belief that is often disrespected in our world. I thought about this motto often over the years after I graduated. When I have found situations where people were not treated as equal under our laws and social norms, or where injustice was being done. My mountain heritage and the Berea teachings made it absolutely necessary that I not sit idly by but take action."
"I spent 30 years as a state social worker in New York City, Connecticut, and Virginia. During that time I was horrified to find that children with emotional and mental disabilities were unable to receive needed care and treatment while in their parent’s custody because their parents could not afford the very heavy cost, and medical insurance would not cover it. However, for kids who were in foster care, the State was willing to provide all the needed services. Parents of children with emotional and mental disabilities were forced to choose between keeping their children or giving them up to the State so they could get treatment."
Jeri seated with Berea President and his wife and granddaughter Josie and surrounded by family:
Sons Richard and Jason, Daughter Melissa, Grandchildren Seamus, Rebecca, Josie and Louisa May,
Niece Sherry Rostron and her husband Glen, and College roommate Linda Sanford and her husband Chuck.
"I worked with the professors at the University of Richmond Law School to set up a legal clinic for these children and their families. The clinic represented the youth to ensure that they received appropriate and free education and treatment while parents retained custody. We also researched the laws and policies of other states and published our findings. This research was presented to the state of Virginia, and ultimately, with the help of many others, the laws and policies were changed. Subsequently, a legal advocacy group in Washington D.C. persuaded other states to change their laws and policies as well.
"After I retired, I wanted to continue to help people. My daughter introduced me to a Medicine Man on the Mattaponi Reservation in Virginia. He was trying to establish a sponsorship program for the Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota."
"On a visit to the Reservation, I learned for myself the extreme poverty conditions under which 40,000 Lakota Indians live. Families are often crammed in small 3 bedroom homes with as many as 10-20 members, huddled around an oven for warmth. Kids go without food. Grandparents go without so they can give bread to the kids. Youth commit suicide at a rate 5 times higher than anywhere else. 75% of the teenagers drop out of high school and addictions affect almost all families. The unemployment rate stands at 80%. The average life expectancy is 48-50 years. It is the poorest place in the nation."
"These conditions might remind us of the way things used to be here in Appalachia. I saw the situation and I could not sit idly by. I established One Spirit and worked with the Lakota people to develop ways to care for their own."
"In the last 14 years, we have worked together to produce a food program that provides food for more than 5,000 people each month. We’ve employed the Lakota to cut and deliver wood to homes so warmth can still come from a fire. We’ve built a youth center and a safe house. We’re working with them to bring back buffalo herds, and we’ve just finished construction on a facility to process the buffalo meat. For the youth, we’ve sponsored long-distance running and lacrosse teams. We want the youth to find opportunity and hope."
"On Pine Ridge Reservation, I have found 40,000 intelligent people who live within their beautiful culture and harbor wisdom that needs to be shared with the world, if the world will listen. This might also remind us of Appalachia. God really has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth."
Beautiful photo of Jeri seated between the President Lyle Roelofs and his wife, Laurie. They are as proud of her as we are!
"You won’t be surprised to know that with One Spirit, we have found people all over the US, Europe and other parts of the world who carry in their hearts the true meaning of the Berea Motto."
"Thousands of donors and 150 volunteers have supported One Spirit programs without receiving anything in return. But, we have been immensely compensated by the satisfaction of knowing that the Lakota people were respectfully being supported as they cared for themselves."
"I also have come to understand the spirit of the Lakota people, and it reminds me of the Spirit of Berea and the Berea motto. The Lakota people have gifts to share, and it is these gifts that when shared can make our world a great place to be."
"I am grateful to Berea College. The teachings ingrained here in me and in all the students that come through your doors and learn in your classrooms, send out ripple effects. I have benefitted, Children with mental and emotional disabilities have benefitted, and the Lakota people have benefitted from your love of and commitment to humanity. Multiply that times all the students who have been here. That is a mighty impact."
"Thank you Berea College."
Bravissima, Jeri...well done!