Fitch class of 1987 member Michael Berlin jumped of a bridge in New Zealand on Feb. 23, not for himself, but to honor a classmate that passed away that day. He did it for her because it was something she always wanted to do.
The story begins several years earlier when Berlin came up with the idea to put together a Facebook page for the Fitch class of 1987.
"I wasn't on the reunion committee," he said. "I got sucked into the process because I put the Facebook page together."
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Michael Berlin, class of 1987 from Austintown Fitch, prepares to take the plunge off a bridge in New Zealand in honor of classmate Jennifer Riefler, who lost her battle with cancer in February.
He thought by using Facebook and social media, more classmates could be found and eventually reunited for the reunions. In working with the committee, Berlin found himself helping one former class member with whom he had a terrible fist fight in school.
Berlin's idea also brought other unexpected contacts, such a finding out about classmate Jennifer Riefler.
"Via a Facebook post, I found out that Jen was admitted into the hospital around 2009 for ovarian cancer while I was visiting my wife's family in Brazil," Berlin said. "In an attempt to contact the hospital via phone to send a gift, I was accidentally transferred to her room where I was able to talk to her the day of her surgery."
The classmates connected and later that year, Berlin, Riefler and David Lazazzera held a mini reunion at BW3 in Austintown. Riefler had dyed her hair purple to signify her battle with cancer.
After the gathering, the former classmates stayed connected via Facebook. In fact, the page was gaining more and more classmates and presently has grown to 187 of the 500-plus members of that year's graduating class.
Jumping ahead to Feb. 16 of this year, Berlin was checking his Facebook on his phone while sitting on the runway after arrival at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. He saw a post stating that Riefler had been admitted to Cleveland Clinic to treat a recurrence in her cancer.
Berlin had a short time at home before he had to leave on a scheduled trip to New Zealand with an organization called Entrepreneurs Organization. He decided to spend Feb. 17 at the hospital, where he was able to serve as advocate for Riefler. He pushed her wheelchair around as she faced tests and treatments, and simply visited his former classmate.
Berlin said he told her about the trip he was taking the next day. She said she really wanted to visit New Zealand and that she always had a dream of bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge, where the sport was born.
"We had a nice time where we were able to share some hospital stories together," Berlin said. "We also made plans to talk about my trip to New Zealand upon my return. She said that she always wanted to go bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown. I promised her that if I had the chance, I would do it."
Berlin ended his visit and the next day he flew to New Zealand. As fate would have it, the convention organizers were offering a chance drawing.
"Twenty-five of the 500 members had their name drawn to make the jump," he said.
On Feb. 23, the same day that he was notified of Riefler's death, Berlin's name was drawn for the opportunity to bungee from the bridge.
"I knew I had to make the jump for Jennifer," Berlin said.
While he said he was a little nervous, it was overcome by the determination to keep the promise he had made to Riefler. He geared up and took the plunge, which he said was very smooth and thrilling.
"There was no jerking, it was very smooth," he said.
Berlin said the whole ordeal was done to honor Riefler. Afterward, he was glad he did it, but was amazed that his name was chosen out of so many on that day.
As he looks back on it, he said he said social media is a great way to connect to old classmates.
"As my 'experiment' continues, I hope that we are able to get more of our classmates to become members of our group and allow us to keep in touch and reconnect as we grow older," he said.
In fact, Berlin learned that through the Facebook page, several other classmates were able to reunite with Riefler and had paid her a visit before she passed away.
Berlin said his mission continues and he hopes more connections will be made before the Fitch class of 1987's reunion at 6 p.m. on Aug. 4 at the Holiday Inn in Boardman. For more information, Berlin said classmates can email email@example.com or visit the reunion Facebook page at Fitch87reunion@groups.facebook.com.
Berlin said he feels the Facebook experiment has saw a degree of success and he is already urging Fitch students not to wait 20 years to get the ball rolling.
"I am encouraging students to get the Facebook page together before graduating," he said. "That way classmates can always stay in touch. I recently told one Fitch senior that now is the time if you want to stay connected."
For Berlin, technology came slowly, but he said it is a change that has been good.
"In 1993 I had no desire to have a cell phone and when I went to Fitch our one computer class used the Commodore 64. Now I carry my cell phone all the time. It just shows you how times change and we all need to change with it."