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Foster father and lacrosse were positive forces in Jennifer Soto’s life

Jennifer Soto, in a UCLA shirt, is shown in Downey with her family, from left: Zack Pack; Rose Pack; Sara Bernard; Chris Bernard, holding her 1988 wedding photo of her and her husband, Alex Bernard; and Ismael Moreno.
Jennifer Soto, in a UCLA shirt, is shown in Downey with her family, from left: Zack Pack; Rose Pack; Sara Bernard; Chris Bernard, who is holding her 1988 wedding photo of her and her husband, Alex Bernard; and Ismael Moreno.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When Jennifer Soto was accepted to UCLA on March 20, it was the culmination of a five-year dream. Ecstatic, the Downey High senior took a screenshot of her acceptance letter and sent it to her foster father.

Alex Bernard had a fever and was drained of energy, but when he saw Soto he hugged her immediately. Having been tested for COVID-19 earlier that day, he wasn’t supposed to be hugging anyone.

But the father’s love knew no regulation.

That’s how Soto, a lacrosse player at Downey, will always remember her dad: Bernard was funny, loving and supportive even in his final days before passing from COVID-19 on March 28, just six days after being admitted to the hospital with the disease. He was 57.

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“He was a good person,” Soto said. “He helped as many people as he could and I’m not just saying that like everyone would say that about their dad, but he actually helped so many people.”

Bernard was an outreach pastor at Downey’s Desert Reign Church whose willingness to help others never wavered, even while battling COVID-19. His fever was burning, but he still tried to will himself out of bed to help deliver food. His children, Jennifer, her biological sister Sara Bernard, and foster siblings Rose and Zack Pack, tried to convince him to stay home. He couldn’t be swayed.

The family finds a sliver of solace amid the paralyzing grief knowing Bernard “did all he could in the world,” Soto said.

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Bernard has been in Soto’s life since before the 17-year-old could remember. The pastor met Soto’s family through Teen Challenge, a program that helps addicts through rehabilitation in part by studying the Bible. Soto’s mother and uncle were in the program, and Sara had been under Bernard’s care since she was 2 days old.

The California Interscholastic Federation canceled the high school spring sports season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed campuses.

While Jennifer remained with relatives, she remembers Bernard being a constant figure. He brought her Christmas presents every year. He helped her family move into a home in Pomona. He took her to see fireworks on Fourth of July.

These are bright moments amid the darkness of a barely there childhood. Soto, who also lived as a child with her grandmother, said she had to mature quickly in an unstable home. She didn’t have money for sports. She had to learn to prepare her own meals from a young age.

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When her grandmother died in 2015, Soto finally moved in with Bernard’s family.

“When I came here, I had so many more opportunities,” Soto said.

After never having the money to play sports, Soto picked up lacrosse as a freshman. She didn’t know much about the sport, only cursory glances of it from the TV show “Teen Wolf.”

Although Soto missed the preliminary tryout, coach Marvin Mires was approached by another teacher asking if Soto could try out for lacrosse. Mires allowed a one-on-one session.

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“You could tell that she was a great kid and she needed some positive in her life,” he said. “She needed to be a part of something because she was never a part of anything.”

Soto is now a four-year lacrosse player at Downey and a three-year varsity starter. The Vikings were the No. 2-ranked Division 2 team in the preseason CIF poll and No. 3 in the latest ranking. The CIF Southern Section approved championships boys and girls lacrosse for the first time this season.

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Soto is positive the Vikings would have won the title. But the CIF canceled the remainder of spring sports Friday due to because of the coronavirus outbreak.

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Although Soto can’t finish her lacrosse career with the opportunity for a title, she takes lessons that helped her prepare for life beyond high school. Mires requires a 3.0 GPA from his players when CIF requirements dictate an unweighted 2.0; the future UCLA Bruin reports a 3.75 average.

“It pushed me to get better grades and do better,” Soto said. “[Mires] has this quote: ‘be a woman for others’ and ‘be a man for others,’ and he taught me how to be a better person, how to just be somebody for others and it connects to my dad because he was such a man for others, too.”

Bernard came to as many of Soto’s games as he could. He was very boisterous. She was so embarrassed by the way he cheered even when she didn’t have the ball.

The teenager chuckles at the memory.

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Soto cycles through raw emotions while remembering her dad. She laughs when she says he was funny — not just dad jokes, she insists — and cries when she talks about his work with orphanages and jails in Mexico.

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And she gets angry when she realizes he is gone.

She still can’t wrap her mind around why this man, so devout in his belief of God and so committed to always doing good, would have to die of this disease. She never thought it could happen. She pleads to others to take the outbreak seriously.

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Like her father, Soto wants to help others. She plans to major in sociology and psychology at UCLA, and wants to go to graduate school to become a social worker. Soto knows the struggle of going through the foster care system and just how much help is needed to keep dreams alive.

“I tell her she inspires me because she just keeps going and going and going,” Mires said. “There’s road blocks and obstacles and she overcomes them.”


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