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Bernardi honors daughter’s legacy with ‘BEE Positive' campaign

By
Tim Linden

Over the past seven years, Joe Bernardi, president of Bernardi & Associates Inc., and his family have raised more than half a million dollars for charities through the Kayla Bernardi BEE Positive Foundation.

“It really is more than monetary,” said Cathie Bernardi.  “It is about how many lives we can touch, and how far we can spread Kayla’s BEE Positive message.”

Joe Bernardi, who was excited to use this story space to talk about his late daughter’s life and impact, agreed with his wife’s assessment 100 percent. “We would like to focus on that more than the dollar amounts,” he said. “The more important thing is how far we have spread Kayla’s BEE Positive message."

To understand the “BEE Positive” campaign, the Bernardis said it is important that you know something about their daughter, Kayla, who lost a battle with leukemia at age 20 in 2015. It was the first battle that got the best of her after two decades of serious skirmishes with health issue.

Kayla Bernardi came into this world on Jan. 31, 1995. She was born with Down Syndrome and had to endure three open heart surgeries before her first birthday. But she recovered, grew up with a great attitude and the Bernardi family treated her as if she had no limitations. “She went through a lot of things,” Joe said. “She had Valley fever, had a pacemaker and had lung problems.”

For most of Kayla’s life, the Bernardi family shuttled between Turlock, CA, in the summer months and Tucson, AZ, in the winter. Joe Bernardi, who has specialized as a tomato broker for decades, has offices in many tomato shipping districts, including Turlock and Nogales. Kayla joined the trek but also had to shuttle between the hospitals at Stanford University and the University of Arizona.

Bernardi noted that when Kayla was 15, she had lung issues and pulmonary fibrosis, which required her to be on oxygen 24/7. “That didn’t stop her,” Joe said, adding that she would ride her bike with an oxygen tank as part of the cargo.

Different medical options were discussed, and eventually young Kayla did undergo an experimental 10-hour procedure on her lungs at Stanford University Medical Center. It worked and she was able to leave the oxygen canister behind. Even with a mountain of challenges and hospital stays, Kayla went through school, graduated from high school in May of 2014 and was exploring her college options when once again she was faced with a difficult diagnosis.

“She wasn’t feeling well and so we took her to Stanford expecting that there would have to be some adjustment with her pacemaker or her medications,” Joe said.

But instead, she was diagnosed with leukemia and spent many more weeks and months in the hospital. “She was in ICU (intensive care unit) for three months,” Joe recalled. “But she took on the challenge with leukemia just as she had with everything else.  She was always very positive and stayed very calm.”

Her leukemia treatment was complicated by the fact that she had so many other issues she couldn’t do the regular chemotherapy regimen. Kayla and her family fought the good fight, but she died March 8, 2015.

After her passing, the Bernardi Family wanted to do something to keep her memory and spirit alive. “As a little girl, she was as busy as could be,” said Joe. “She was our busy bee.”

And her positive attitude, he said was an inspiration to everyone around her. Joe said people still come up to him and relate how Kayla’s great attitude was a positive influence on their lives. “I know she changed my life,” Joe said. “When I got in this business, I was as cocky as they come. She made me a much better person.”

So it was in this vein that Cathie and Joe and their sons, Dylan and Jared, launched the Kayla Bernardi BEE Positive Foundation. Each year, the foundation holds a “5K Fun Run & Walk” to remember Kayla and spread her message. It is held on the last Saturday in January to coincide with her Jan. 31 birthdate.

Joe noted that many produce industry companies have supported the foundation and sponsored the event for many years with about 500 runners participating on an annual basis at the Turlock 5K Fun Run & Walk. The coronavirus pandemic required that the 2021 event be held virtually, which turned out to be a great experience. “The registration comes with a BEE Positive T-shirt and we asked people to wear that t-shirt on the last Saturday of January and spread the BEE Positive message,” Joe said.  “People flooded us with photos from all over the country. We were able to get more involved to spread the message.”

Subsequently, on Jan. 29 of this year, the foundation held both an in-person and virtual event with record attendance. “On the day of the event we had 672 registrants and we had at least 100 day-of-the event registrations posting from all over the country,” he said.

The virtual aspect has expanded the event and given it a national feel. Speaking to The Produce News just two days later, Bernardi reported he had received scores of Facebook posts and emails of people running, walking and hanging out donning their Kayla Bernardi BEE Positive shirts and attitude.

“Each year we have a theme and I typically give a little talk and we honor Kayla,” Joe said.  “This year’s theme was ‘Celebrate.’ What Kayla really taught us was how to celebrate. Of course, she loved to celebrate holidays and birthdays, but she also celebrated the little things — a month without a hospital stay, for example.”

Over the years, the foundation has used the funds donated for many worthwhile projects around the Turlock area, including the local library, Valley Children’s Hospital and Jessica’s House, a Turlock charity that provides a safe space for grieving children, teens and young adults.

Bernardi did not want to single out any produce company that has been a sponsor as he did not want to leave anyone out, but he said many of his customers and colleague in the industry have gotten involved.  Interested parties can find out more about the Kayla Bernardi BEE Positive Foundation on its website.

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