Keeping the spirit of giving alive – Bernie Hollywood

Growing up in Speke, Bernie Hollywood OBE JP had an enjoyable childhood which was full of love, joy and care. His mum in particular was a great advocate for education and encouraged Bernie and his brothers to embrace school.

“She used to say, ‘The more that you learn, the more you earn’ and that really stuck with me,” Bernie says.

“Whilst we didn’t have a lot, we were very much a giving family and gave a lot to the local community.”

Sadly, in his early 20s, Bernie’s parents passed away within six months of one another. He swapped Liverpool for London to become a corporate banker, however, his charitable ways never left him.

“I was very fortunate in my corporate banking career to work within the charitable sector,” Bernie explains.

“I worked for a major banking group in the UK which looked after around about 120,000 charity accounts. My job was to ensure that they were sustainable and they could actually improve the services that they provided through the charitable sector in the best way possible.”

The third (charity) sector is worth around £200 billion to the UK economy every year.

Bernie adds: “It plays a significant part in day-to-day economic life in the United Kingdom. So I was really proud of actually helping these charities and I always felt that corporates could actually do a lot better with regards to helping social enterprises, third sector and charity.”

From inventing ‘Merchant Giving’, which creates funding possibilities for charitable organizations through credit card processing fees, to becoming the sponsorship director for the London 2012 Olympics, and then working for the Prince’s Trust, Bernie’s work life and personal life has been devoted to good causes.

So much so, he owns and supports five schools in developing areas of Kenya and Nepal, along with four successful social enterprises within developing areas of Kenya.

Over the years he has raised over £40million for charities and social enterprises all over the world by devoting his own time, effort and resources by taking part in high endurance adventures.

However, most recently, Bernie embarked on a challenge that very nearly cost him his life.

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge consists of individuals rowing more than 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. It is noted as the world’s toughest endeavour.

On 12 December 2022, he set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. The 63 year old spent over three months at sea with the aim of shining a spotlight on the continued rise of child suicide and depression across the UK and around the world.

Bernie explains: “I wanted to do it solo because I wanted to know how it felt to be lonely whilst I was at sea and basically going through all the elements such as anxiety and panic attacks and so on.

“The race is seen by over 950 million people around the world, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to actually talk about mental health in a different way. I did it uniquely because I didn’t have any sponsors displayed on the boat.

“Instead, we painted a mural around the boat that told the story of a young person going through depression and coming out with hope. That’s why we called it the Boat of Hope project.”

The mural also includes artwork from the winners of a nationwide secondary school art competition run by campaign partner, ParentPay. It contained two winning entries from Gateacre School in Belle Vale.

Measuring at just 7×2 metres, the boat itself was named ‘City of Liverpool’ in honour of Bernie’s late father and grandfather, who spent their entire working lives at the Port of Liverpool.

As part of the project, Bernie also went on a national school tour with the boat, visiting 50 primary schools and 50 secondary schools.

He adds: “We brought our mental health advisors with us and made some amazing mental health packs as well because what we want to do is make it sustainable.

“The visits were great and kids started to talk. They started to draw about how they felt and many children came up to me and said this is the first time they have actually been able to articulate how they feel.”

One school even gave Bernie 50 letters of hope and he would open one up and read it each day. The letters, it turns out, were very much needed as Bernie had to contend with treacherous weather conditions.

He says: “I was at sea for 109 days and endured 17 storm systems. I had all sorts of issues with my physical health – lots of seat sores, my lips were heavily blistered and I got infections in places I don’t need to describe!

“On the second occasion when I capsized, I didn’t think it was coming back up. There is no support around you.

“When you capsize you have a distress beacon and when it’s basically saturated with water, it automatically activates, and sends a ping to a satellite which tells the worldwide rescue service that this boat needs rescuing.

“My boat was under the water for around about 10 minutes, all the lights had gone out and there was a storm raging outside. During all this, I badly hurt my knee from the equipment falling on to me.”

He adds: “I actually got a signal on my satellite phone and made a phone call home and it was 3:00 o’clock in the morning in the UK and nobody answered because everyone was asleep, but I left a message saying goodbye to everybody because I thought I was going to drown.

“I thought this is it.”

Although the distress signal had gone off , Bernie was full of determination and decided that he didn’t need rescuing and that he could sort everything out himself, and so he did.

He managed to remove most of the water from the cabin and got the equipment working again.

Throughout the challenge, Bernie encountered a range of wildlife including turtles, dolphins, whales and even sharks.

He explains: “You can fish if you want to because there’s so much wildlife around you – there was lots of tuna! Although I’m not a sushi fan so it wasn’t for me, but some of the other teams did.”

When Bernie finally reached Antigua – two and a half stone lighter – he was greeted by his wife, son, and friends.

It was an emotional reunion for everyone involved.

Once back on UK soil, Bernie had his knee checked out and the doctor confirmed that it was in fact a break.

“I rowed for goodness knows how long with one leg, which is quite amusing now, but at the
time I was in agony!” Bernie says.

Bernie is continuing to raise awareness of mental health and suicide prevention, having recently carried the ‘Baton of Hope’ to Westminster.

The Baton of Hope aims to be the biggest suicide prevention initiative in the UK and was founded by journalist, Mike McCarthy and Steve Philip who were united in grief following the death of their sons.

In the autumn Bernie will return to Kenya to build his next school and is running a project inline with the United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals and will be opening the first ecofriendly solar panel generated school in Kenya.

He says: “Together with Beatbox, we will open up a power plant which will generate solar power
energy for the whole of the school, but also we’re selling off the excess energy to the local community to enable them to have power as well.”

With all the experience and knowledge amassed over the last 40 years, Bernie is applying to become a crossbench peer in the House of Lords to represent the third sector and also mental health and wellbeing.

There’s absolutely no question that he’s the right person for the job!

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