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Building Bridges: Memphis Youth Empowerment Organization Prepares Leaders for Today and Tomorrow

In the heart of Memphis stands BRIDGES, a beacon of hope and transformation for the city’s youth. Its signature program, Bridge Builders, established nearly four decades ago, has evolved from a youth service organization to a dynamic force for social change. 

The program empowers young people to become leaders in their respective communities and the Memphis community at-large. And BRIDGES is making room to engage and empower even more young people. 

Mario Hendrix: Mario Hendrix is a triple threat member of the Bridge Builders community, having been a participant, now serving as the VP of Programs; his children are also Bridge Builders. (Courtesy Photo)

“We believe that every young person has the potential to make a difference,” said Mario Hendrix, vice president of programs for BRIDGES. “Our mission is to provide them with the tools, resources, and opportunities they need to thrive.”

With more than 800 applicants to date, and 660+ students currently engaged in its year-round Bridge Builders program, BRIDGES is creating a space for students to connect, collaborate, and effect change, its three main tenets. However, the organization has set its sights even higher, aiming to enroll 1,000 students in the program this year, returning to pre-pandemic levels.

This year’s COLLABORATE program deadline is Friday, April 19th. Interested 6-11th grade applicants across the city can apply here

Bridge Builders, a youth empowerment program, teaches life lessons through fun exercises. (Courtesy Photo)

“We’ve seen firsthand the impact that BRIDGES can have on young people’s lives,” said Dana Wilson, executive director for BRIDGES, who just recently announced her retirement, effective December 2024. “Our goal is to reach as many students as possible and empower them to become agents of change in their communities.”

Wilson works alongside a Youth Advisory Board comprised of Bridge Builders who assist with strategic planning, programming and even interviewing staff. There is also a Youth Justice Action Committee (YJAC) that immerses students in the justice system. The sky is the limit, especially now that we’re on the other side of the global pandemic.

Reflecting on the challenges posed by the pandemic, Hendrix emphasizes the importance of in-person, experiential learning opportunities, especially given the diversity in learning abilities. 

“Technology is a valuable tool, but it can never replace the face-to-face interactions that are foundational to our programming,” Hendrix said.

At the core of Bridge Builders’ success is its youth-empowerment initiatives, which give students a voice, build their confidence, and connect them to organizations that are inciting change.

One of the life lessons Bridge Builders learn is teamwork in order to solve problems.
(Courtesy Photo)

Students are learning they are valuable members of the community, while learning soft skills, like conflict resolution and respect, essential for problem-solving and effective communication.

One of the hallmarks of Bridge Builders’ programming is its emphasis on honest conversations and vulnerability. “We encourage students to express their emotions openly and explore the root causes of social issues,” said Hendrix. “It is through these conversations that real change can occur.”

Hendrix attributes some of BRIDGES’ success to its approach of not “talking AT” the students, but rather listening to them. Even fun activities often lead to poignant questions that drill deeper into community issues. Consequently, youth leaders feel their opinions and input are valuable.

Building the Future

With Bridge Builders’ 40th anniversary in sight, Hendrix has big expectations about the future. 

“We’ve come a long way since our humble beginnings,” said Hendrix. “But our work is far from over. We remain committed to empowering the next generation of leaders and building a brighter, more inclusive Memphis.”

A recent $1 million donation from the McKenzie Scott Foundation is making that future even brighter. The donation will enable BRIDGES to provide even more from a programming standpoint, and to an even broader audience. 

“We look at the needs of the students and how we can satisfy them, with a goal of providing more access for students, and even more programming opportunities,” said Hendrix. “Additionally, we’re launching our Youth Action Center, where students and adults can learn to be partners, find their voice and receive training to be even better community advocates and leaders.” 

Looking ahead, Hendrix envisions a future where BRIDGES continues to amplify youth voices, foster leadership, and promote diversity appreciation. 

“Our goal is to create a community where every young person feels valued and supported,” he said. “With each new student welcomed into the BRIDGES family, we take another step towards that vision.”

As he prepares his team for growth, Hendrix wants to set the record straight. 

“You don’t have to be a straight-A student to be a Bridge Builder,” said Hendrix. “We want to empower those who are NOT already on a leadership track. ALL are welcome and can learn something to help them become community leaders.”

For more information about BRIDGES, visit bridgesusa.org

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