Our philosophy is that youth deserve to be respected and recognized for the positive role they can play in making Memphis a better place to live, work and play. To properly equip our youth to play a leading role, they need to learn to embrace diversity and inclusion. Yet, in greater Memphis, young people’s day-to-day interactions and relationships are racially, ethnically, socially, economically and/or religiously segregated. These are huge divides that block collaboration, trust-building, mutual understanding and empathy that are so vital to effective community building.
Our intensive training teaches not only respect for diversity and inclusion, but it also builds skills for the 21st Century like creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, effective citizenship and social responsibility. Often young people are not taken seriously in schools, community organizations or politics. That’s why Bridge Builders programs are designed to train youth to embrace their role in society by engaging in service to their community. They take to heart what they learn in Bridge Builders and become committed to applying it for the greater good. Enabling youth to have a voice in decisions that affect them can help make our city more vibrant, creative and attractive to businesses and future residents. Youths’ civic engagement yields responsible citizens who want to stay engaged and make a difference. Getting youth involved in Memphis early on will also help reduce brain drain away from the city, therefore retaining young talent to make Memphis better.
Through Bridge Builders programs, confident and courageous young leaders emerge who are committed to transforming the community.
In 1922, women from Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral established the Church Mission of Help, based on an outreach mission begun at Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City in 1913. The focus was on “wayward and delinquent women and girls over 16 who found themselves in difficulty.” The program was run by volunteers until 1924 when the first staff person was hired, Miss Theresa de Birmingham, as executive secretary. In 1925, Miss Agnes Grabau became executive secretary and served in that capacity until 1960. During her tenure, many changes occurred. The agency’s name was changed to Youth Service on May 21, 1947 and the mission was expanded to include boys and to provide vocational counseling in 1948.
In 1962, the agency was incorporated as an independent non-profit organization known as Youth Service in Memphis. The Rev. Donald E. Mowery was hired as executive director in 1963 and served until 1994 when he retired. In the past the agency had provided services to young people in its office. “Father Don” took his work to the streets. During this period, the agency became one of the first in Memphis to integrate its programs, and close ties to government agencies and Memphis City Schools developed. During the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it became increasingly difficult to find outdoor spaces to hold integrated activities. This prompted a partnership with the Naval Air Station in Millington.
In 1988, a community volunteer, Rebecca Webb Wilson, brought a program called Bridge Builders® to Youth Service. Her idea was to bring together high school students from diverse backgrounds for summer conferences and year-long activities that would build leadership skills while simultaneously forging ties between future leaders of the community. The program began with 40 students from Northside and Briarcrest High Schools.
In 1995, The Rev. James R. Boyd was chosen to lead the organization into the 21st century and became president of Youth Service. Jim brought a new vision to the agency, one based on entrepreneurial approach to social services that lessened the organization’s reliance on rapidly diminishing government subsidies. In 1996, to more accurately reflect the work the agency was doing, the name was changed to BRIDGES.
During Jim’s tenure, the BRIDGES Center was built and opened in 2004 in Downtown Memphis. Bridge Builders programs went through a tremendous period of growth under his leadership.
Jim stepped down in 2011 and in 2012 Cynthia Ham joined BRIDGES as its president and chief executive officer. Today, the Bridge Builders® legacy year-round program, COLLABORATE, engages more than 1,000 youth representing every public, private and parochial high school in Memphis and Shelby County. Additional workshops, events and programs attract another 5,000 diverse youth from throughout the Memphis area.
The mission of BRIDGES is to unite and inspire diverse young people to become confident and courageous leaders committed to community transformation. The organization is an independent non-profit 501(c) 3 and has no political or religious affiliation.