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Building Bridges

Building Bridges offers meaningful training and jobs for Grand Rapids youth who, as employees of the program, maintain vacant and foreclosed properties and provide top-notch, affordable landscaping and construction services to community members. Empowering youth and reducing blight, Building Bridges is a partnership between Bethany Christian Services and Urban Family Ministries. 
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Bethany Christian Services of Michigan Youth Services Department Manager Justin Beene: Building Bridges is innovative because it hits on so many of the core issues facing our youth and communities today. In many inner city neighborhoods, the role models that young people look up to are rappers, drug dealers and athletes. Success means being told to move out of the city and get away from the “hood.” In order for communities to thrive, there needs to be a base of young men and women who have character, integrity, viable employment, and can be role models to the next generation.
In order for communities to thrive, there needs to be a base of young men and women who have character, integrity, viable employment, and can be role models to the next generation.

Our Building Bridges youth learn specific skills under the leadership of a licensed builder and trained landscaper.
We provide residential landscape maintenance to over 100 vacant and foreclosed properties through a partnership with a local developer in the urban center. We also provide snow and trash removal, power washing, minor drain cleaning and residential and commercial construction projects, including drywall, roofing, remodels, decks and more.
These strategic partnerships economically develop and environmentally enhance commercial districts and surrounding residential neighborhoods while providing an opportunity for youth to engage in employment, life skills training, leadership development, civic engagement and mentorship within their own community.
Finally, Building Bridges is committed to raising indigenous leaders more than only offering short-term summer employment. We seek to engage young people for years to come through longer-term employment and other programs within the Youth Services Department at Bethany Christian Services.
By having a business model and market niche we have a sustainable program that will continue to operate without needing any federal or state contracts. Even more, our Building Bridges youth take ownership in the program and play a key role in its day-to-day decision-making processes. They are included in staff meetings. They developed and voted on the program logo. They play an integral part in sharing the message of our work – both on and off the job – by the way that they represent themselves in the community. Because we value each individual and provide a format for them to contribute their specific gifts and talents in a meaningful manner, we have seen youth blossom, we have seen residents change their view of young people, and we have left the community with less environmental blight.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
If we affirm youth in their work, if we hold them to high expectations while giving them the opportunities to lead and the tools to do so, they thrive. It was a challenge to let one of our program youth take the leadership reigns and begin managing his own work crew, driving his own work truck and trailer, and allowing him to drive a commercial riding mower. Yet, this summer, we hired one of our previous summer youth employees permanently. He received a pay increase and has been flourishing in his ability to do quality work and lead his fellow employees.
Building Bridges believes that each member of our team is essential and that they were brought to our program for a reason. As staff, it is our job to pull their potential and capabilities out of them. We have learned that the youth are the biggest asset, that if we invest in them through training, supervision, encouragement and give them opportunities to lead, they will take the program to the next level.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
The most difficult lesson that we have learned is that we can actually do more harm than good if we don’t match our good ideas up with sound thinking. We have learned that it may be the best thing for a young person to get fired than to keep them on when they are not performing. An example would be that we had a young girl working for us, and, after two summers, we
Our relationships go beyond just work, so youth are not just seen as clients, but as peers in community development.
began seeing that her work quality was not improving. Her attitude wasn’t great. She just worked for us because it was a place of safety but that wasn’t allowing her to follow her dreams and move into another phase of life. After the third summer of work, we let her know that she would not be able to work for us the following summer (at 20 hours a week because that is the amount of work we had for her). Instead, we suggested that she meet with an employment coach and look into full-time employment.
This was very difficult for us and for her, but we knew that she wanted to do more, was capable of more, and that Building Bridges was becoming a stagnant place for her. This summer, that young girl no longer works only 20 hours a week at minimum wage for us. She has been working full time at $9 an hour for the past seven months.
What really differentiates this program?
Relationships, relationships, relationships.
One of our core values is relationships, and we believe in developing deep and long-lasting relationships with God, with each other, and with innovative partners to grow the quality and capacity of our efforts. Our mission is to create opportunities for transformation through meaningful relationships, work, education, and community revitalization. Our mission and values are lived out on a day-to-day basis. The staff does a fantastic job at meeting the youth where they are at, developing strong trusting relationships, and then challenging them take it to the next level.
Building Bridges is unique because it is not just a job-training program. For many, it has become long-term employment. Youth want to stay in our program because they feel empowered, affirmed and come to know their true potential. Our relationships go beyond just work, so youth are not just seen as clients, but as peers in community development.
Staffers have begun to learn from the youth, to value their ideas, their processes, and youth who feel dignified achieve great things. 
What are the keys to success for your program?
Specifically, Building Bridges has been effective by utilizing this model:
1) Affirm youth’s losses of the past and treat them with respect;
2) Affirm youth’s significance, value, and leadership potential for the present and future;
3) Connect youth to intangible and tangible community resources, networks and social supports;
4) Hold youth accountable to high quality work and values;
5) Celebrate their small successes publicly;
6) Develop youth as leaders, so that they can teach others within their community;
7) Develop diverse partnerships and funding streams for programming; and,
8) Deliver quality work at a fair price
This model has proved successful in engaging youth and building community, as well as expanding business for sustainability. 
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Person Profile

  • Dona Abbott
    Bringing evidence-based practices to child and family programs


  • Bethany Christian Services
    To demonstrate the love and compassion of Jesus Christ by protecting and enhancing the lives of children and families through quality social services.     


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