If you have an opportunity to meet Holly Bernardo, get comfortable and get ready to be inspired. She is a storyteller, a friend to all, and a passionate advocate for social services and affordable housing in Tallahassee and beyond. These are just a few of the traits that make her one of Tallahassee’s 25 Women You Need to Know.
Bernardo is a Tallahassee native, but she left for Nashville to earn a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Trevecca Nazarene University and to Atlanta for her husband’s career before coming home and settling down.
“I love Tallahassee, I am so glad that we moved back and are doing our family here,” Bernardo said. After working as Development Director at the Kearney Center in southwest Tallahassee, she is now CEO of the Big Bend Homeless Coalition.
She is passionate about serving those who are experiencing homelessness and talented in finding innovative solutions to do so. “I spent part of my youth doing humanitarian work in Nicaragua, Uganda, Mexico, and saw a lot of poverty,” she said. “I wondered what I could do that would be meaningful.” She has dedicated her professional career and personal energy towards being a bridge for others who are between homes.
“We think of developing countries as being the worst for poverty but people in America live without running water,” Bernardo said. “People here still don’t have access to food, health care, or mental health care. We have to open our eyes to our most vulnerable neighbors that live next door to us in Leon County.”
She explains the scope and impact of homelessness and lack of affordable housing in Tallahassee with expertise and purpose, and wants you to know that yes, you can make a difference.
Managing the team that facilitates emergency housing for everyone from families to veterans, is part of her DNA, she says. “The length of stay at Hope Community used to be 184 days and now is 61 days. We average 100 people a night and have a 30-family waiting list.”
Bernardo is excited to be working on fully funding Hope Community with a fundraising campaign called 1000 Champions for Hope, explaining, “We are asking 1,000 people to make financial contributions. Each donation will help provide a safe and temporary home to families in need of emergency shelter.”
The key word is temporary; Bernardo envisions a Tallahassee that houses everyone, where nonprofit organizations own and operate housing at a rent people can afford. Public-private partnerships are part of that solution, and she’s proud to be at the table for the conversation, and to roll up her sleeves for the work.
“It is getting harder to not see the homelessness here. Tallahassee is wonderful, but it is only really affordable for some,” she said. “We have to build workforce housing that people can afford. It’s really quiet in the shelter every day because people are out working three jobs and trying to figure out where they can afford to rent. They need a bridge.”
Bernardo is a passionate member of the Village Square Board of Directors, facilitating community conversations about tough issues. “I don’t care what side of the line you are on, all of us need to come to the table to discuss these issues. We have to look through each others’ lenses. This is our Tallahassee and it is up to us to be the solution.”
Solutions like these are complex, but she isn’t afraid to ask for help. As Vice President of the Big Bend Association of Fundraising Professionals, she gladly steps up to the microphone to champion the causes most important to her. “We’re going to spend money on something, so we might as well make it be something that makes a difference.”
In 2020, she was named Big Bend Fundraiser of the Year.
At her own home, she enjoys raising her two children with her husband, Christian, who she calls a “rock-star dad.” They enjoy the outdoors, building bonfires, and checking out local playgrounds. “I have won the girlfriend lottery,” she shares. “I love being with smart women.”
Holly Bernardo is a smart woman, and one that Tallahassee should hold on to for a long time. Her focus, enthusiasm, and passion will help us build more than we ever dreamed.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: 25 Women: Holly Bernardo works for solutions to homelessness