Interviewee: Damlet Berkitt

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: June 24, 2016

Location: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Description: Damlet Berkitt is a retired school food service worker in the Virgin Islands.

JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is June 24, 2016. I’m here in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands with Damlet Berkitt. Welcome Ms. Berkitt and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

DB: You’re welcome sir.

JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?

DB: OK. I am originally from the British island Dominica. And I’m here from 1968. I left my home and I reside in St. Thomas from April 23, 1968, so that’s my home now. We got married in ’69. We have five children. I attended South Amalie Night School. I had classes, different classes, different time, sewing and cooking. I also had a session with cooking before, so after I had the children I decided to go to school lunch to further my cooking experience.

JB: When you were going to school on Dominica and here were their meal programs at the schools?

DB: No, in Dominica no, we didn’t have any meal. We had to go home for our meals. If it was time we go home, because the island is like, our area is not too far, so we just run down the hill and go home for lunch, or Mom cook our lunch so we ate and we go back to school.

JB: And you said that was a British island?

DB: Yes, Dominica is between Guadalupe and Martinique. We speak creole or patois, you know?

JB: Yes, I heard. So you decided to further your cooking by going to school lunch?

DB: Yes.

JB: And when did you start working in school lunch?

DB: I started in ’95, August ’95.

JB: And how many schools have you worded at?

DB: I work already about four schools. The first school I started is Charlotte Amalie High School. I work as a food service worker for I’d say about seven years. And then after they sent me to Antonio Jarvis School. I was there for maybe another year or two. And then I was sent to Evelyn Marsalis School, not too far from where I live. I spend a couple more years there, and then I was transferred to Edith William – no, I was going to go to Lockhart Elementary School. I was working there and they needed another cook up there so they sent me to Evelyn William School. I say, “Um-um. I don’t like up there.” I didn’t like. It made me feel like an old fashioned school. I wanted to go back to Lockhart, so I ask them to send me back to Lockhart. I feel more comfortable. It’s a bigger environment. And until the present time, 2009, well, I had issues, because I got injured with the – so I get Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, so I wasn’t able to lift up the pot, so I decided to retire. And after my retirement I stayed home maybe a couple months, and I decided I needed to do something more. And so I went to Human Services, where they get the seniors since at my age I senior, so that we could do volunteer work. So they asked me where I would like to go. I said well since I was already working at Lockhart I would like to go back to Lockhart to work. So they said, “OK.” So they gave me the job. I did it until this present moment. I love my children. We love serving them when we cook so they could enjoy their meal when I was cooking. But I have these children now and it’s a blessing. We are there to help them. Sometime they leave their home, and you try to help motivate them. Some of them feel, you know, they need a hug, you know. You help them in whatever purposes you can. Sometimes they might say, “We come later. We need some breakfast Mrs. Berkitt.” So I carry them to the nurse, because when they late to say carry them to the nurse, and she give permission to carry them into the cafeteria to have breakfast. When you’re hungry you cannot think. But it’s good. It’s a nice experience.

JB: Was there someone like a mentor or someone who kind of helped guide you as you got into the school lunch profession?

DB: I worked with Mr. Arnell Barklett. He help me a lot. Ms. Isaak came in after, but Ms. Isaak is there also. She comes in sometimes and help us with things. Another cook, we put our head together and we work together as a team, and we did very well, in spite of sometimes it’s not easy. We come here to serve the children and that’s a blessing.

JB: Is there anything unique about the Virgin Islands regarding the child nutrition programs, different foods, or a different way things are done?

DB: Sometime when I sample the food now, it was different before, but right now they send the chicken, it’s got too much sodium, which I have to cut down on sodium for the people suffering high blood pressure now. And some of the food, they say, “It’s yucky.” I said, “No, it’s healthy.” But they don’t like this and they don’t like this. For breakfast they like egg, they like egg and the sausage, or pancakes. Sometimes they like the bread and cheese, different menu, according to the menu. But some of them eat well. We encourage them. “Eat the vegetables.” I keep telling them that. “Eat your vegetables and your fruits. It’s good for you.” As a parent, as a volunteer worker, as a cook, as a food server, I did all that.

JB: What was a typical day like for you before you retired? What time did your day start?

DB: Before I retired my day start at 6:30 in the morning and go until 2:30. It was a joy to be at work. You come in to serve your children. It’s service. I learned service. Wherever I go I try to do service. That’s my thing. It’s a pleasure – pleasure to feed my children. I have five of them. It was a pleasure to fix the breakfast with them. It’s a joy to sit down. After you cook you sit with your family and you eat. So when I was at school sometime I try to sit down with them to see that they eat – blessing – I love that.

JB: And as soon as breakfast was over I guess you had to start getting ready for lunch.

DB: Oh yes, oh yes. We had to do lunch. You have to be ready with lunch. First the kindergarten comes in and then the other classes, but it was good, always on time.

JB: What were some of your favorite things to prepare for the children?

DB: For breakfast or for lunch?

JB: Either one.

DB: OK. For breakfast some of them love the cereal, dry cereal. Some love hot cereal like the oatmeal cereal, cream of wheat. Sometimes they love the French toast, pancakes with syrup. And the lunch, we had fun cooking. Before you used to do soup, but it takes a lot. We do all of the chicken soup and fix it up for them nicely. They love it. They love the pizza, and chicken and rice. Sometimes we give them fish fillet and they eat that too.

JB: I was going to ask being here on an island, is there much fish in the menu?

DB: Uh-huh. Yea, we love fish. I could eat fish every day. I get my fish every Saturday on the waterfront. There’s a guy from Tortola. He comes in every Saturday with fresh fish, so we get fish there. We got fish every day. We eat fish.

JB: I’m envious. Fresh fish. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced over your career?

DB: To pull together like a team – you know, sometime the challenge is to participate and work as a team in peace, because sometime some people are very annoying, and you need to work in peace, take time, put more emphasis in our work, and do a good job.

JB: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition programs?

DB: Is to leave your – in the morning – is to leave family, leave your environment, and you have to – it’s raining – to be at work to do your work service. It’s tough to leave to go in any weather. But when you go everybody’s there. We are all there to work to do a better job for our children, because the children are the ones we come to serve, and we are there for them. We want to make sure they enjoy and eat their lunch and meals that was provided and give thanks. Because sometime when you come and say, “Good morning,” just to help them to learn how to approach people. When you want a job you’re got to say, “Good morning.” That’s a good experience. Let them learn how to meet people.

JB: Do you have any memorable stories about special children you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over your career?

DB: OK. It was a joy to serve. We had two blind boys, and every day they couldn’t swallow their food, so then we had to puree their food. Every day we had to puree their food, so sometimes the family said, “Mrs. Berkitt, you know, my son always talks good about you.” They said we fixed their lunch. It was a pleasure to do it, to make sure they eat something. That was a good experience. That was a challenge to us to make sure everybody had something. The less fortunate sometimes – one guy said, “We have not anything to eat at home.” So I said, “OK. You’ve got to come in early so you can get your breakfast in the morning.” And now he’s in high school, in college, and he still makes time for Mrs. Berkitt for taking care of him when he was going to school. I remember that. It’s beautiful experience. I never forget.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was thinking about going into child nutrition as a job today?

DB: I would tell them you have to be dedicated. You have to have love and to have a contented spirit, because you have to be unified, because unity goes with strengthening your work emphasis so you could do more for your children, and to make sure they are there to help them, because when they eat healthy – like I tell them, “When they eat you could think. Your brain function better, because when you’re hungry you can’t think.” So make sure they eat. If your mommy didn’t give you anything at home, when you come to school look for something. All people in the cafeteria, they’re always ready to help them. I would tell you they always ready. And Ms. Isaak know that.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?

DB: Oh my gosh. I would add to that it’s a blessing. The Lord wake us up every day to come out to do a good job. He give us the knowledge and understanding and wisdom to help other people, because some of the children really need our care, and to motivate them, guidance, love, and that’s what I would encourage anybody who willing to do a good job and to do the best to serve our community and the children. There are many children, some of them live like far from the school, and sometimes they might be late, so – that’s a good job. I mean it pays – everybody talk about the pay, but we thankful for whatever we get, you know, because when I started it wasn’t so, but right now it’s different. But do their best, that’s all I can say for now.

JB: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

DB: Bless you. Have a nice day.

JB: Thank you.