Bridges of Norman, formerly Independent Living Services for Youth, is celebrating its 15th anniversary on Wednesday, October 13, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the Bridges student center, 1670 N. Stubbeman, said Donna Brown, president of the board of directors. “We became a 501(c)(3) in 1995, and have helped hundreds of students graduate high school since then. This is a great example of a community coming together to benefit independent students.”
For high school students who live alone and want to graduate, Bridges assists with housing, educational services, connection with other social services, case management, and steps toward higher education. Bridges students are alone due to a family crisis which might include the illness, incarceration or death of a parent; homelessness; or other situations beyond their control which result in the lack of a guardian. Before they are accepted into the program, students are thoroughly screened to be sure they have a true need and possess independent living skills, maturity, ability to follow rules, and determination to finish high school. Housing is managed through the Norman Housing Authority, which provides single-person apartments with sliding-scale rent based on student income. The Norman Public Schools help underwrite educational and counseling needs, and Norman’s three Rotary clubs collaborated to build a Bridges student center for weekly Lifeskills classes, a computer lab, and offices.
Students are held to high standards of behavior and maturity, guided by a handbook that details program requirements. Because education is the focus of the Bridges program, students are required to maintain passing grades and attendance, checked weekly online via Parent Portal. If students are dropped from school, they are dropped from Bridges as well. Due in part to high levels of accountability, in the last three years, 75% of Bridges seniors have gone on to higher education, compared to a state average of 50.3%. A Bootstrap scholarship program initiated 15 years ago by businessman Jim Agar pays eligible students a $2,000 scholarship towards college or technology school. To date, Bridges has awarded over $100,000.00 of these grants.
In the early 1990s, counselors and staff at Norman High School noticed the emergence of a needy population: homeless teens. Norman had no program for independent youth, and state law forbade them from attending high school without a parent or guardian, forcing them to drop out. This made their situation worse: the only jobs available were minimum-wage positions, and because they were not yet 18, they couldn’t execute a contract for rent, make car payments, or receive insurance. Many lived from meal to meal and couch to couch. They were ineligible for government assistance and social services, and their diminishing options put them at risk for illegal ways to earn money.
In 1993, school counselors and Leadership Norman precipitated the Mayor’s Task Force on Homeless Youth, which got the legal guardian law changed, so that homeless students could stay in high school. In 1995 the task force became a nonprofit, Independent Living Services for Youth (ILSY), and a University of Oklahoma student began working with Norman High’s homeless population. The first paid employee was hired in 2000, and in 2004 the agency purchased Sooner Pointe apartments, 20 units across from Norman North High School, and began housing eligible students. ILSY received its 501(c)(3) designation in 2005 and became the only agency in the region to offer educational assistance, housing and other services to independent teens.
When ILSY became a United Way agency the next year, funding to hire a full time director and social worker and a part-time office administrator became available. At that same time, Norman’s three Rotary clubs, the Norman Housing Authority, and community donations funded a student center in the middle of the apartment complex.
To better reflect additional services, the ILSY name was changed to Bridges in 2007. At the same time, the agency added mentoring and savings programs. The Kay Absher Savings account, named in memory of former director of the Norman Housing Authority and ILSY champion Kay Absher, was established as an incentive-based savings account for students. Participants are paid for grades, attendance, involvement in Lifeskills classes, extracurricular activities, and steps towards college, such as taking the ACT test or touring a campus.
The Bridges Career Coaching program pairs students and mentors based on their interests and expectations. Solid community support has helped Bridges recruit businesspeople to go through the mentor training, where adults learn to guide without judging or parenting. They commit to connecting at least once a week with their student for lunch, dinner, an activity, or a phone call, and to setting up at least two job shadows. Mentorship also includes monthly activities for all coaches and students.
The anniversary reception at Bridges is made possible by the Hyden Fund, a charitable donor advised fund of the Norman Community Foundation; Abbey Road Catering; Poppy Lane Florists; Stubble, Inc.; Maren Hobbs; musicians Kayla Cox, Amy Hobbs, Maren Hobbs, and Lacie Savage; and miscellaneous donations.