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Raised mostly by a single parent, Bucs tailback Giovani Bernard pays it forward

The veteran recently sprung a surprise gift on a group of Tampa Bay single parents.
Bucs running back Giovani Bernard (25) scores a touchdown in the first quarter during a home game against the Dolphins on Oct. 10. Bernard, born and raised in Palm Beach County, signed with the Bucs as a free agent in April after eight seasons with the Bengals.
Bucs running back Giovani Bernard (25) scores a touchdown in the first quarter during a home game against the Dolphins on Oct. 10. Bernard, born and raised in Palm Beach County, signed with the Bucs as a free agent in April after eight seasons with the Bengals. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2021

TAMPA — The single dad, a workaholic and a widower, couldn’t bring himself to put a bow on his benevolence.

“He wasn’t a big present wrapper,” Bucs tailback Giovani Bernard said.

Instead, Yvens Bernard, who spent nearly every waking hour running a south Florida dry cleaning business, would stash all the Christmas gifts he had purchased for his two boys — including Yvenson, Giovani’s older brother by seven years — into a pair of black garbage bags and hide them.

“That’s just one thing I always remember my father doing,” recalled Bernard, who lost his mom to thyroid cancer at age 7. “He just didn’t have the time to wrap the gifts and do all this and do all that. He’d just put them all into a black trash bag and he’d say, ‘Here’s your trash bag and here’s your trash bag. Have at it.’”

Yvens’ compassion — short on frills but huge on heart — matriculated to the ensuing generation.

Last week, Bernard joined a Zoom link with roughly two-dozen single parents — several of whom had toddlers or preschoolers fidgeting in their laps — who were tuned in from one of three area United Way Suncoast resource centers.

After sharing his backstory and soliciting discussion from his small virtual audience, Bernard invited his guests to open the drawstring bags presented to each of them by Bucs cheerleaders.

Each contained Bucs apparel (shirt, hat, socks), a holiday card from Bernard, and an envelope containing $500 department store gift cards. The parents’ face coverings partially concealed the wide grins, not the wide eyes. Most began applauding.

Bernard beamed.

“When they opened it up, the look on everybody’s faces — I mean, it’s Christmas,” said Kari Goetz, United Way Suncoast’s chief advancement officer who watched from the Sulphur Springs resource center. “It’s the look that you want to see on people’s faces at the holidays. It was surprise, delight, gratitude, and just a little bit of magic.”

Bucs running back Giovani Bernard speaks to 25 single parents during a recent Zoom session. Bernard surprised the parents, who joined the session from one of three local United Way Suncoast resource centers, with $500 Target gift cards and Bucs gear.
Bucs running back Giovani Bernard speaks to 25 single parents during a recent Zoom session. Bernard surprised the parents, who joined the session from one of three local United Way Suncoast resource centers, with $500 Target gift cards and Bucs gear. [ TORI RICHMAN | Tampa Bay Buccaneers ]

Altruism is dispersed liberally, in various forms, by Bucs players this time of year. On Sunday, the Mike Evans Family Foundation presented college scholarships to six east Hillsborough high school students with limited financial resources.

On Monday night, the offensive linemen and their coaches footed the bill for a meal, grocery store gift cards and shopping sprees for 50 children and their families selected by Metropolitan Ministries.

But only a few can identify with their beneficiaries as closely as Bernard, who funded the gifts with a matching donation by the Buccaneers Foundation Social Justice Fund. His dad arrived in Miami by boat from his native Haiti at age 19 and ultimately raised his family in the working-class sectors of Palm Beach County.

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Even before they married, Yvens (pronounced like Evans) and Josette Liuberis (also born in Haiti) worked practically side by side roughly 16 hours a day, first at a dry cleaning business followed by nights cleaning office buildings. When Josette died suddenly — leaving behind 7- and 14-year-old boys — Yvens’ work ethic seemed only to intensify.

Even with a son who has earned millions in the NFL, Yvens still manages an apartment complex property in Boca Raton.

“He was an individual that, every single thing that he did was just all about work,” said Bernard, whose foundation also launched a small pre-K school in Haiti named after his mother. “That was kind of the thing with him, and I think that’s the thing with myself. I’m quite used to working hard.”

The Bernards’ lifestyle — from tidy homes to two-room apartments to fleeting homelessness — fluctuated with Yvens’ financial circumstances. As Yvens toiled to support his sons, the boys found a support system of friends — and parents of friends — who provided rides to practices, or even a spare bedroom when necessary.

Among Bernard’s biggest supporters: Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, dad of one Bernard’s boyhood football teammates.

“We bounced around quite a bit,” said Bernard, who spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Bengals before signing a one-year free-agent deal with the Bucs in April.

“That in itself, my dad juggling two hats, playing the mom role and the dad role, it taught me a lot. I grew up very quickly, I had to mature very quickly.”

On this evening, the masked faces peering at Bernard on his laptop represent kindred spirits also periodically in need of a helping hand, much like Yvens and his boys a generation before. Before the gift bags are distributed, Bernard asks his audience to share the rewards they’ve discovered in single parenting, as well as any parenting advice they care to offer.

Bernard and his wife, Chloe, are expecting their first child Christmas Day. They want the gender to remain a surprise.

“I think the most rewarding part is just being able to see my daughter smile before she goes to sleep,” Aunesiha Whitson tells the group. “Because being a single parent is really hard and there’s times where you think that you’re doing it wrong. But to see her smile, I know I got something right during that day.”

Those are the priceless rewards. Bernard, who has witnessed their struggle first-hand, will continue trying to supplement them.

“For me, it’s just kind of been a thing that my father has kind of instilled in me,” he tells the audience.

“I’ve got to go out and try to help. Wherever I can help, just be that shining light to be able to provide, or even to be a good light for somebody or a family.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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