Monday, March 24, 2008

Bridges to a Brighter Future About Providing Love

Published in the Greenville News on February 25, 2008

By: Tobi Swartz, Director of Bridges to a Brighter Future

I am often at a loss for words when a friend or neighbor asks, “What do you do at Furman University?” There is no word or sentence that accurately describes the profound experience called, “Bridges to a Brighter Future.” When I attempt to describe the program, I always begin with, “Bridges to a Brighter Future is a pre-college, academic enrichment program for Greenville County high school students whose potential outdistances their circumstances.” People are always interested in the phrase, “potential outdistances their circumstances.”

Lately, to change things up, I have described Bridges as a college access program. However, the reality is that no words I creatively blend or brainstorm will ever fully describe the “experience.”

One of our 75 amazing students recently stated in a speech about Bridges, “You know how sometimes you can’t explain something because you just have to be there to experience it? That is exactly how I feel about Bridges.” It is true. To best understand the program, you have to be there.

So I am left standing in front of interested people, searching for the words to describe something that is indescribable. Even when I engage someone enough to capture their interest in the program, they look at me with blank eyes trying to make the connection. It is hard for people to understand that for me, being the director of Bridges to a Brighter Future is not a job; it is a ministry of love.

On February 1st I reached my four-year anniversary working with Bridges to a Brighter Future. While I feel like I am still fresh, have unlimited ideas to implement, and lives to touch; I also feel as though I have walked a million miles and have given unconditionally all that I have to give. I had no idea when I started this position that I would come into the calling that God bestowed on my life. I now understand that he has called me into a ministry of love.

A Bridges parent once asked me, “How do you do it?” I knew exactly what she meant by this question. In these five words, she was really asking how I find the energy to love, counsel, mother, inspire, mentor, motivate, instruct, educate, and hold accountable 75 at-risk teenagers. When I really think about it, it even overwhelms me to think about the magnitude of this responsibility. I surprised myself when I responded without hesitation to her question, “Love.” Really, it was the first thing that came to mind, “Love.” I could not do this work if it were not for the overwhelming, overpowering, and overcoming love that God has placed in me.

This one word, “love,” has so much power. Mother Teresa said, “If we love until it hurts, there will be no more hurt, only more love.” Can you imagine a world where we love rather than tear down, hurt, and abuse? A world where our teenagers do not separate themselves in cliques and put down others perceived to be lesser than. This world does exist, it is called, “Bridges to a Brighter Future.” The Bridges faculty, counselors, and students pour so much love into each other that it heals the hurt these students have endured from their difficult lives.

A Bridges student recently stated, “The love you get in Bridges, I can’t explain it in words. The love is real. Everyone loves you; they love you for who you are, no matter what. I was hurting so bad before I came to Bridges. When I came to Bridges, they just loved on me until I couldn’t hurt anymore.”

So when someone asks me, “What do you do at Furman?” All I can do is smile, knowing that I will not be able to express in a sound bite the experience or the love. Maybe I should just say, “I love until it hurts.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bridges Student Damaris Taylor is Making a Difference at Greenville High Academy

Bridges student Damaris Taylor is a force of nature. Everyone around him is influenced by his energy, power, and presence. When we first met Damaris, we knew that there was something special about him. He had a twinkle in his eye and a special something that we call, "potential." Damaris is the oldest of five children. His mom was 15 when she had Damaris and was a single mom for quite a few years. Damaris is the spitting image of his mom and considers her his closest confidant. There are few conversations I have with Damaris where he does not say, "I was talking to my mom about..." Damaris and his mother have a very close relationship.

While Damaris came to Bridges with a solid support network we felt as though he had untapped potential and lack of knowledge about the educational system and college. When Damaris applied for the Bridges program, he wrote in his essay, "Students my age may life a better life than mine and never notice that their parents made sacrifices in order to allow them to have the luxury they have, but I do realize those sacrifices. When I reach my goals I will have completed them most of all for myself, but also for may mom, dad, and grandparents who didn't have the chances to excel in this society to their highest ability."

As a freshman at Greenville High Academy, Damaris excelled in the classroom, but lacked the confidence outside of the classroom. Damaris was involved in a few activities, but did not see himself as a leader. He two closest confidants his freshman year were friends Luis Gonzales and Dean Bailey. All three of them applied for the Bridges program and were accepted. They were very close, eating lunch together and spending their free time together. I was always amazed by their friendship because Damaris is Black, Luis is Hispanic, and Dean is White. When most teenagers only hang out with people that look like them, these three broke the mold.

Damaris came to Bridges for the first time in the Summer of 2005 as a member of the Iota class. The Iota class was and continues to be a dynamic class (Most of the students in the Iota class have already been admitted to college). When Damaris came together with the other Iota class members, there was an explosion. They all fed off each other. They found power and inspiration in knowing that they all lacked resources but possessed unlimited power and potential. Damaris was definitely a leader among the group. Their collective energy was amazing. Several of the veteran Bridges faculty stated, "The Iotas are special, there is just something about them."

At the end of the four weeks, Damaris went home with a new vision for himself. He went back to Greenville High and was elected Sophomore class representative. As he went through his sophomore year, second summer at Bridges, and junior year growing from his experiences. Bridges helped him grow in leadership and confidence. He participated in Youth Leadership Greenville and after Bridges in the summer of 2006, the Bridges program accessed donor Stewart Spinx to help Damaris go to Washington, D.C. for a student leadership conference. With all of these collective experiences and growth, combined with Damaris' innate abilities, he decided to run for student body president. This was going to be quite a competition because he was running against a popular, well known young woman. The student body at Greenville High saw what we saw in Damaris: vision, enthusiasm, and voice. They elected him student body president and he hit the ground running from his first day in office. Damaris can look back at his senior year and list pages of accomplishments. Among them, leading the student body in raising a record amount of money during their spirit week competition.

However, last weekend Damaris did something very special and will be the one accomplishment that defines his tenure as president: The Raider Diversity Retreat. The idea for the retreat came from several areas of inspiration. As a freshman in high school, Damaris endured racial slurs and was and continues to be a minority in his classes. He has observed divisions within his school that hinder student growth and progress. After witnessing and living in the diversity of the Bridges to a Brighter Future program, he realized that their is power in "difference" and that he could bring about change in his school. He took some of his Bridges experiences and workshops, and combined them with what he saw another high school implement, and he created a vision for the Raider Diversity Retreat.

Damaris promoted his vision to Community Leader and Riley Institute Senior Associate, Calder Ehrmann. Calder told some of his friends and colleagues about the retreat and raised $6,000 for the retreat. Damaris called upon people in the community that he had met in Youth Leadership Greenville and other activities to serve as chaperones. Damaris created an agenda, workshops, and secured a location, the Clemson Outdoor Lab. He worked with the Greenville High Graduation Coach to select students to participate. This vision was manifested in a three-day overnight retreat at the Clemson Outdoor Labe fore 30 DIVERSE Greenville High students from 9, 10, 11, and 12 grade. They were a cross-section of the segregated groups that exist at Greenville. For three days, they communicated with each other and ultimately created a vision and plan for how they can collectively change the environment at Greenville High to be more inclusive and unified.

Reflecting on the weekend Damaris stated, "Getting these diverse students together sparked something in them. They are empowered and excited. People at school are noticing it. It is very important for them to be inspired. Over the weekend, they came to the point where they realized that it is O.K. that we are different. It is O.K. to share ideas with each other, accept one other rather than tear each other down."

We are immensely proud of Damaris as we are all of the Bridges students! He as applied to Harvard, Emory, Furman, and several other colleges. There is no doubt that he will take his energy and vision to these colleges.

You never ever know how Bridges is going to inspire, change, or motivate a student. It happens in different ways for different students. For Damaris Taylor, Bridges developed his leadership and confidence, and gave him the experience of a multicultural environment and the power in unity. You also never know what the "trickle down" effect is going to be. Sometimes Bridges students take what they have learned home and inspire and support their siblings, parents, or other family members. Sometimes they inspire their friends to make good decisions and go to college. In Damaris' case, he has inspired the entire Greenville High student body!

Pictured here are the Greenville High Academy students on the Raider Diversity Retreat. In addition to Damaris, three other Bridges students attended the retreat, Luis Gonzales, Ashley Jenkins, and Erika Garcia.