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BRIDGES is ‘home’ for learning opportunities

Mario Hendrix is vice president of programming for BRIDGES. (Courtesy photo)

If there was a Bridge Builders poster child, it would be Mario Hendrix, vice president of programming for BRIDGES.

He has been an employee at BRIDGES, a youth transformation organization, for 20-plus years, and affiliated with the nonprofit for more than 30 of its 35 years.

Hendrix and his team currently are recruiting more students for their youth-development and leadership programs.

The deadline for rising seventh through 12th graders from any school in Memphis is April 10. The application is available at BridgesUSA.org.

BRIDGES has recruited 800 students and wants 300 more enrolled before the school year ends.

“Students have the opportunity to attend youth leadership conferences this summer and learn throughout the next academic year,” said Hendrix.

So, what are they learning? How to take up space, let their voices be heard and how to connect with those who live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, and have different backgrounds.

“One of the facets of Bridge Builders is providing a space for kids to feel like they’re a part of something – a shared space.

“It’s not a utopian society. It’s about bringing people together who have difference of opinions, different emotions and creating a space for them to really understand each other on a deeper, non-superficial level,” Hendrix said.

Zaheen Chowdhury (right), a junior at Pleasant View School and a member of BRIDGES’ Youth Advisory Board, attended the 2022 Summer Conference with other Bridge Builders. (Courtesy photo)

Zaheen Chowdhury, a junior at Pleasant View School, and a member of BRIDGES’ Youth Advisory Board, can attest to the benefits of the program.

“Through Bridge Builders, I have become a better listener and communicator. I have learned the importance of compassion and consideration, all of which allow me to become a better leader,” said Chowdhury.

“Through participating in the yearly summer conferences since the seventh grade, I have met so many different people with different perspectives and experiences; people I woul͟d not have met without BRIDGES.”

The Bridge Builders COLLABORATE program is based on three pillars – leadership development, diversity of appreciation, and community action, and is created based on students’ input.

“This organization is not only for youth, but by youth as well. I serve on the Youth Advisory Board of BRIDGES, the youth equivalent of the board of directors. Through my role, I provide youth input and perspective to the highest levels of the organization’s leadership. I am involved in the decision-making processes for curriculum, programming, recruitment, and more,” said Chowdhury.

Through a series of trainings and exercises, like the rock-climbing wall, the “trust fall” and others designed to inspire students to get out of their comfort zones, they learn to trust their team members and other valuable lessons that prepare them for life beyond school.

The COLLABORATE program begins in the summer and runs through the next school year. Once students become a Bridge Builder, they’re welcome to attend year after year until they graduate. But for some, that’s not enough.

Mario Hendrix with other Bridges staff members accompanying Bridge Builders on the Urban Trek. (Courtesy photo)

Hendrix described BRIDGES as a lifestyle for him. He returned as a summer counselor after completing the program and became a BRIDGES intern before choosing to work there full time, earning one of the top leadership roles in the organization and becoming the longest-tenured employee.

“When I first entered the program, I was a rising 10th grader and didn’t want to come. My grandma made me come. I was missing my friends and wanted to go home by that Wednesday.

“But as I continued to attend the meetings, I realized it was different. I met people from across the city, interacted with so many races and cultures that I never would’ve met, and things started to connect for me,” said Hendrix.

Chowdhury agrees and encourages her peers to become a Bridge Builder for personal and professional growth, among other intangibles.

“Do it! Becoming a Bridge Builder has been one of the most beneficial and rewarding experiences of my life. I have met so many outstanding people through the program and have had so much fun doing so.

“I look forward to my summer conferences every year, making amazing memories and relationships with my cohort members and facilitators,” said Chowdhury.

Hendrix said the program helps students learn responsibility and how to care for their community, all while doing something they might have never done before. He wants students and their families to take advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow outside of the classroom.

“There is a notion that the kids are doing this and that wrong. The youth in our community are seeking an opportunity to be heard, valued, and to have a seat at the table, to interact with other youth, to understand who they are themselves and to feel seen.

“Our responsibility is to get the students in and allow them to see they have valuable thoughts and beliefs so that they can positively impact the Memphis community at large,” said Hendrix.

(Visit bridgesusa.org to learn more and apply.)

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