By Robert L. Haught
Will Rogers Writers Foundation
Retired Military Chaplain Norris Burkes, who writes a syndicated column that offers a hope-filled approach to everyday spirituality, is the recipient of the 2019 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, great grand-daughter of Will Rogers, will present the award Friday, June 21, at the dinner session of the NSNC conference in Buffalo, N.Y.
Burkes, of Auburn, CA, engages in work involving a variety of charitable causes and activities. A particular series of columns focuses on a humanitarian project, “Chispa,” initiated by his daughter, Sara. Pronounced cheez-pah, meaning “spark” in Spanish, Chispa has a mission to help children in Honduras, Central America. The project sponsors children’s libraries and equips them with quality books in Spanish by working side by side with community leaders and educators.
Chispa began in the summer of 2012 when Sara Burkes donated a small number of books to a tiny mountain school, then stayed to organize what became an undertaking with global reach.
In January 2018, Chaplain Burkes and his wife went to Honduras for three months and wrote about the experience in his column. He invited volunteers to join them and to donate support money. In March 2019, in his column, he rallied readers to travel with him to Honduras and about 12 volunteers from different states responded to his challenge to serve on a one-week mission trip to launch another library space. “The volunteers were people I had never met before,” Burkes said. “We prepare and paint pretty space for the books, build bookshelves, pack the books, and train the teachers. We met all the students.”
Over the past five years, the libraries have served over 60 local communities, offering more than 18,000 books to schoolchildren.
“My daughter reports that my column has directly raised about $30,000 over the last 3 years,” Burkes said.
“We’ve given 18,000 books to over 50 schools and organizations.”
Norris Burkes started writing his column, “Spirituality in Everyday Life,”on October 5, 2001, for Florida Today. He has written national columns for Gannett, and later GateHouse, and is now a self-syndicated columnist in about 35 newspapers.
He is a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain who served for 28 years, including time as a combat duty chaplain in Iraq. He wrote about that experience in “Hero’s Highway.”
Burkes has a BA in religion and journalism from Baylor University, Waco, Texas; a Master of Divinity degree from Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley, CA; and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Portland, OR.
He has run two marathons of 26 miles, completing the Air Force marathon in a little over five hours. In 2013, he took up golf, but says he is not yet to be trusted with keeping accurate score.
Burkes is a longtime member of the NSNC and has attended a number of conferences. He was a second-place winner in the 2010 column-writing contest.
Robert L. Haught is a former NSNC officer and board member who developed the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award program and has served as coordinator since its establishment in 1999.