Mission Memphis Day 5: BRIDGES USA

The Experience

Sometimes I wonder about who our future leaders will be. I think about our high school students and I try to envision who they are and how they will shape our world. Are they passionate? Are they inquisitive? Driven? Tolerant? I have wondered what these young minds will bring when they become the leaders of our world. Yesterday I realized something. They already are leaders. Last night, I saw the future. And the future is awesome.

I still remember how I felt as a high school student – I wanted to contribute, but felt that “adults” overlooked and underestimated me. At BRIDGES I saw a completely different experience. I met with Julia McWhirter, the Director of Community Engagement and she explained that the mission of BRIDGES is to “build a community of leaders to advance racial, economic, educational and environmental justice.” They recruit students of all races, religions, and backgrounds to join together and become a true team. BRIDGES gives students a place to “find their voice, experience their power and build positive relationships in order to create strong lives and extraordinary communities.” This approach was evidence in every aspect of the Bridge Builders program I saw last night.

Peace Room at BRIDGES USA

Peace room at BRIDGES USA. Volunteering Day 5

BRIDGES provides a dedicated working space for the students to gather and carry out a range of projects related to social improvement. A common term for the space would be war room, but instead the students call it their “Peace Room.”

Janay (left) and Ieshia (right)

Janay (left) and Ieshia (right) at BRIDGES USA.

During the course of the evening, I also meant two incredible volunteers – Janay Stewart (University of Memphis) and Ieshia Hoye (Rhodes College). These two have devoted their time to working with the Bridge Builders. I asked Janay what inspires her to give so much of her time and she answered instantly, “As long as you can reach one and make a difference for one person, it’s worth it.” Ieshia said that she enjoys the relationship building with the students and likes that they’ll confide their ideas and struggles with her. And ultimately, they both agree that it’s just as much fun for the students as it is for the facilitators.

The programming for Monday night centered on understanding the role and function of presidential debates. The students participated in a mock debate – opening statements, points, counterpoints, rebuttals, and closing arguments were presented. I was blown away by the thoughtful responses and thoroughness of their answers.

Bridges Mock Presidential Debate

Bridge Builders Presidential Debate

While they did an excellent job, I was most impressed with how the students approached controversial topics and differences of opinions. It’s clear that they have been taught to respect each others opinions even when they have disagreements. They managed to discuss topics related to job creation, business growth, national defense, immigration and healthcare in a way that was calm and respectful. These students effortlessly demonstrated skills that elude many adults.

During the course of the evening, I talked with their wonderful staff members and the dedicated volunteers. But I wondered – what would the students have to say about their experience? I had the opportunity to ask a few questions, just hoping that one or two students would share some feedback. So I asked, “What you do you like about Bridge Builders?”, and their hands shot into the air! I couldn’t write fast enough to take down all of the incredible things they told me:

“It forces us to think about how I find my information. It’s hard to find unbiased facts, but now I know to look for them.”

“It’s a safe place to express myself” – Kayla

“I get the opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds focus on a common goal and come out of our shells.”

“I have the chance to meet a diverse group of other students and see people I already know, but in a new light.” – Joelle

“The facilitators know what they’re talking about and I feel like they want me to really understand it.” – Kalil

“It’s fun and we get to talk about things that we don’t get to talk about normally.”

If it were up to me, every student would participate in Bridge Builders. In part, it’s up to me. But it’s also up to you.

How to Help:

Sponsor a student! It costs about $525 for one student to participate in the year-long Bridge Builders program. You can donate and grant this opportunity for one bright young mind in Memphis.

Attend an event. BRIDGES has numerous fundraising events throughout the year. I’m kicking myself for missing Cory Booker last month! In the future, you’ll definitely find me at ClimBRIDGES!

Volunteer! Become part of the BRIDGES Corps. Check out their video about the experience.

Spread the word! BRIDGES used to be limited to high school juniors and seniors, but they recently expanded, which is great news! Now 6th-12th grades can experience BRIDGES in several ways: Attend CONNECT events (one-day programs) or apply for their year-long Bridge Builders program.

Website: BRIDGESUSA.org

Facebook: facebook.com/BRIDGESUSA


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If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis?  Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!


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1 Response to Mission Memphis Day 5: BRIDGES USA

  1. I’m completely biased when it comes to BRIDGES, as my daughter’s experience there has truly changed her life. And you’re right. If we can keep some of the Bridge Builders in Memphis to lead this city in the future, it could indeed be awesome.

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