Bridge for Kids helps students reach the other side — a future full of potential

A bridge doesn’t have to be big — just something that helps gets people to where they want to go. For a San Diego student named Brianna, the little boost she got from local non-profit A Bridge for Kids made a huge impact on her life.

Brianna, an immigrant from Honduras, has never given up on her valedictorian and college dreams, despite hopelessness and eviction after eviction as her mother struggled with a gambling addiction that resulted from the death of her mother and the suicide of her husband.

A senior in high school, Brianna has had many sleepless nights because of the “hunger that consumes the mind when there is not enough food on the table to feed a family of seven.”

With the help of A Bridge for Kids sponsorship, she not only got to tour East Coast college campuses and to receive simple “little things” like new kneepads for volleyball and replacement shoes to help her play sports comfortably — she felt as though she was accepted into a family and made to feel special and loved.

“With their support, I have grown to believe in myself,” Brianna wrote about A Bridge for Kids. “It’s always the little things that count. I know we can’t change the world all by ourselves but we can certainly change it one person at a time.”

Stories like these are the reason why Carmel Valley’s Randi Shanken is so passionate about the work she does as the executive program director for A Bridge for Kids.

In the past two years, A Bridge for Kids, founded by La Jolla residents Tammy and Michael Nance, has sponsored about 100 youths. Their second Casino Night fundraiser held on Oct. 11 at the La Jolla Country Club brought in $150,000. With help from the sponsorships made that night, the nonprofit will be giving out a little over $27,000 worth of sponsorships to 27 teens in the next few weeks.

Shanken has been involved since the beginning of the Nances’ organization.

“I was just very impressed by the fact that they were looking to make a difference in a niche that nobody else was really filling,” said Shanken, a former nurse who moved into sales and marketing for a medical device company. “Teenage years are really such a pivotal time. At the time my daughter was in high school, I was in the midst of it and I understood how important it is to have someone who will invest in you.”

Bridge for Kids is run entirely by volunteers, all working out of their homes so there is very little overhead — every dollar they bring in goes directly to the kids.

The main emphasis of Bridge is to identify low-income, high-achieving teens who may not be getting what they need to move ahead in life because of their financial situation.

The organization has helped students from schools such as Barrio Logan College Institute, Escondido Charter High School, The Preuss School and City Heights Prep. Students are typically nominated by counselors or teachers, and candidates stand out because of their GPAs or their athletic or artistic skills.

Shanken said when Bridge for Kids first started, forming partnerships with the schools was challenging, because the program sounded too good to be true. Now that there are several success stories to point to, the program has been able to make more connections. Their goal is always to see the program grow and to sponsor more students.

The support given by Bridge for Kids differs from kid to kid — each of them has different needs on their wish list.

Many want computers because they don’t have one at home to do their homework or work on college applications. For some, Bridge for Kids pays for extra coaching or for an extra-curricular activity that will help round out a college application; others need money to take the tests required to enter college.

One student whose family has battled unemployment and medical bills wears uniforms to school, so she wanted clothes to wear for when she went to college. Another girl whose family are refugees from Somalia couldn’t afford the equipment to play on the lacrosse team.

Another student just wanted a desk. He was a 4.0 student who did his homework on his cousin’s mattress.

“The stories will just break your heart, and yet they have overcome adversity like you would not believe,” Shanken said. “They keep GPAs of 3.8 to 4.2, and yet they don’t have a mattress to sleep on or they’re sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 11 people. Some are homeless, some are in the foster system, some have great, loving parents, but they have no income and all they want is a little bit to help them.”

A Bridge for Kids has also organized college visits, allowing students to tour schools on the East Coast like Harvard, an opportunity they would probably never get otherwise.

Shanken said that on the trips, students can visit with financial services officials and find out about assistance.

“They can see that it’s real and that it can really happen,” she said, noting that in 97 percent of the cases, the students are the first in their families to go to college and many families are unaware of the financial aid available.

“These are schools that with their GPAs, they can get into but are complete dreams to them. The visits help open up their eyes to the possibilities.”

The organization is also looking into providing ACT and SAT prep classes to help their students stay competitive with peers, who are taking the prep classes they are not.

A Bridge for Kids makes sure the relationships between student and sponsors are completely safe — the sponsor is never given the student’s last name and all e-mail communication between them is monitored. Should a sponsor want to meet a student, parents or guardians must sign a waiver.

This year, Shanken is helping proof her sponsored student’s college essays and talking to him about the application process, offering a little extra encouragement and guidance.

The student Shanken was sponsoring last year received a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. Bridge for Kids provided him with a laptop, which he used to complete his applications to Harvard, Yale and New York University. The nonprofit also allowed him to visit the East Coast, as his brother also had a full scholarship to Duke University. He discovered the East Coast was not for him, and chose Stanford.

“I was just so proud of what he was able to do for himself,” Shanken said. “He had so little, but he and his aunt collected toiletries to give to an orphanage in Tijuana. These kids are amazing, amazing teens and our society would lose out if we didn’t try to nourish them, help them realize their dreams and help them create the life they want to create.”

A Bridge for Kids can always use more volunteers, sponsors or donors, Shanken said. They need help with grant-writing, program development and planning next year’s fundraiser.

“We’re looking for anybody with the talent and desire to help these teens,” Shanken said. “They’re really diamonds in the rough, and we really want to give them the opportunity to shine.”

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