Kingsbridge resident talks surviving HIV and helping kids in his community

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Jonathan Berenguer
Courtesy of Jonathan Berenguer

Jonathan Berenguer had faced monumental challenges early on in his childhood. The lifelong Kingsbridge resident was born with HIV and he had lost his parents Orlando Lopez and Elizabeth Berenguer by the time he was 5 years old.

Although the doctors did not think that he would make it into adulthood, Berenguer, 30, survived a grim diagnosis and is now a tutor and director of a nonprofit that counsels children.

Both of Berenguer’s parents were diagnosed with HIV, an autoimmune virus that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States per year. The Bronx resident was infected with congenital HIV and weighed just 2 pounds and 11 ounces at birth.

“The doctors pretty much told my grandparents I was not going to make it,” he recalled.

He spent the next four months in an incubator, but as his mom recovered in the hospital following his birth, she was visited by an ex-boyfriend who tragically murdered her.

Berenguer was a fighter and eventually made it home to his grandparents Carmen and Rudolph Berenguer. He had a brief relationship with his dad until he was also killed when he was 5.

His grandparents legally adopted him at 6 years old, but at the age of 10, Berenguer faced another crushing loss when his grandfather passed away.

“As a kid you don’t realize it,” he said about the losses he experienced. “You don’t feel hurt.”

Carmen took her grandson to the hospital to receive regular treatment and he was HIV-free by the time he was 6 years old.

“I was a momma’s boy. I wasn’t embarrassed,” he said.

According to Berenguer, having a mom much older than the other kids his age did not bother him. But things changed in middle school as he began to get in fights. Berenguer recalled how he even once punched a friend hoping to impress a girl.

He soon realized that times like these were where he missed having a dad.

“There was a part of me that wanted to make my dad proud,” Berenguer said.

Not long after that, he started to attend church and became more focused.

In high school, Berenguer found his passion for tutoring kids. He would tutor youths in math and in his sophomore year of college at Lehman, he launched a business called By Your Side Tutoring.

“Eventually I realized I want to do something in education to help students,” he said.

During college he also began working as an after school counselor with children and quickly fell in love with it.

Berenguer would share his story with kids, which usually got them to open up to him. While he obtained an Earth Science education degree in 2014, Berenguer got a job as a counselor with Trio, a nationally funded mentoring nonprofit.

Then in 2018, he got his master’s in organizational leadership and became the director of Trio.

Whether it is a weekday after school or on the weekends, Berenguer said that he and his employees do their best to make a difference in kids’ lives.

“It makes me feel like I’m a superhero almost,” he said.

Berenguer told the Bronx Times that in the past five years, he has really reflected on his life and recognized how much of an impact his grandmother had on him.

Carmen instilled in him the values of humility and resilience but also had a great sense of humor. Berenguer said that she had two open heart surgeries and survived COVID-19 and also recalled the time she put a rubber spider on his toothbrush as a prank.

Even with his busy schedule, he tries to watch a novella with her every night on TV.

In addition to his grandmother, Berenguer said that his fifth grade teacher Tony Plata was a big influence on him during his childhood. While in school, he said that Plata taught him the importance of confidence and using one’s voice to speak up.

“At the end of the day I’m no different than anybody else and that’s the message I want my students to take,” he said.

In his spare time, Berenguer also conducts motivational talks for the Department of Education.

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