The Columns

Changing Perspectives: Lainey Johnson ’16 Changing Perspectives, Shepherd Intern at Bridges, St. Paul’s School , Baltimore, MD

— by on September 5th, 2016

Lainey Johnson '16

“It’s important to take a step back from the daily grind to think about all that can be accomplished now and in the future for children denied what others have routinely been given.”

“Have you thought about what you want to accomplish by December?”

It was six weeks into my time in Baltimore when my supervisor asked me this question. On a beautiful Thursday evening we were outside enjoying the first simple, peaceful moment after a long day at camp, watching the rising high school students write letters to themselves to be opened in 4 months, exactly one semester into their high school careers. These letters were to be a personal reminder of exactly what they wanted to accomplish in their first bit of time as high school students. I stood on top the highest point on St. Paul’s School campus, overlooking athletic fields, academic buildings, and perhaps one of the most beautiful views of the rolling hills surrounding Baltimore, a beauty that is hard to see and appreciate when grounded in the middle of the city. In the few minutes of quiet that followed, I thought about my summer, how I had spent the preceding six weeks and how that would change my outlook, worldview and goals in the future.

On Monday at the summer institute, elementary, middle and high school students were all at Bridges. High school students had SAT prep classes, essay writing aid, and visits from volunteer speakers encouraging thought on personal goals and aspirations. These students spend the rest of the week at job placements throughout Baltimore, gaining valuable job and life experience and develop and maintain interpersonal skills. Elementary and middle school students came to Bridges for the entire week, taking extensive academic classes in the mornings, while afternoons were dedicated to entertaining and enriching activities including sports, yoga, swim lessons and various art classes.

Bridges has no income or eligibility requirement but simply seeks to serve students that will take advantage of opportunities that they would otherwise not be afforded. To some extent, the majority of Bridges students lack some sort of disposable income, adequate family support or other educational opportunities, but each student differs. Bridges seeks to supplement the students’ opportunities in three areas: home support, quality of education and surrounding people and peers. All low-income students or students that come from single-parent families will not benefit from identical treatment, so Bridges develops programming distinctive to each student’s needs. Bridges meets students and families with what they can bring to the table and builds on their strengths.

The expansiveness of the Bridges program astounded me. In addition to summer programming, 4th-12th grade students receive similar support year-round, including afterschool tutoring and weekend mentoring. The opportunities that Bridges is able to provide to students are incredible. Every student, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, ethnicity or family situation would benefit from participation in a program like Bridges. This leaves us with two harsh realities: these programs and opportunities are not available to all students, and those to which it is available do always not capitalize on the opportunity. Children need support. They need individual attention. They need life advice, and they need job experience (just to scratch the surface). These are things that public schools simply cannot provide. This is why Bridges exists and why programs like Bridges would be beneficial if expanded.

Throughout my summer, I experienced moments of attention-grabbing beauty, clarity and purpose in the midst of days and hours when it was hard to see past the minute details of working with such an expansive long-term program. At Bridges, I saw it when I helped a ninth grader swim for the first time. I saw it when a fifth grader told me he was proud of himself for the progress he made. I saw it when a seventh grader whispered a simple ‘thank you’ on the way home from our tubing trip, a terrifying experience for him that I helped him navigate. I saw it when another seventh grader overcame her immense fear of embarrassment and completed a perfect step team routine with six other girls before a large audience. These small moments of beauty make Bridges a program that is enabling opportunity for many of Baltimore’s children. It’s important to take a step back from the daily grind to think about all that can be accomplished now and in the future for children denied what others have routinely been given. We need glimpses of the daily beauty that emerge in programs with long-term goals for middle and high school students that are able, with tailored support, to accomplish more for themselves and society than we might initially imagine.