Weekly sessions help Camden teens navigate life choices

November 15, 2013

Lourdes program gives youth a 'safe haven' in a dangerous city


Almost every Tuesday evening for the past 34 years, a few dozen teens and several adults — a different mix of people each time — have assembled at a gathering space at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J.

Plopped down on the carpet or sitting in chairs, the young men and women might chat about their dream travel destination, their career aspirations, their experience handling family conflicts, their challenges dealing with stress.

Marielena Burgos, left, and Erika Raiken take part in The Bridge Youth Employerment Sessions at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J.

For many of the attendees, the weekly gatherings, called The Bridge Youth Empowerment Sessions, represent a refuge in a city that regularly ranks among the worst in the nation for crime and poverty. The Bridge director Renee Pinardo says, "People here are in a constant state of chaos. The city is crime-ridden. Families are riddled with pain, and loss and trauma" because of losing loved ones to violence and crime. "The young people are in homes with drug and alcohol abuse and domestic abuse, and schools are like war zones here."

The Bridge sessions allow the teens to envision and prepare for a different future than what they see around them, says Pinardo.

Yolanda Quintana, a youth volunteer group leader at the sessions, says "we present topics that are helpful, and (teens) … can open up and tell us about themselves and really reflect on who they are and what they want to be.

"The fact that they can share, free of judgment, and they are supported in whatever they share and helped in whatever they need to achieve (their goals) — that is what makes The Bridge so vital," says Quintana, an alumna of The Bridge and student at Rutgers University–Camden.

Safe surroundings

Pinardo has been running the program since its inception in the late 1970s; her daughter, Maria Pinardo, grew up with the program and now is its assistant director. Erin Feeney, an AmeriCorps VISTA employee, also staffs The Bridge. Much of The Bridge's $98,000 annual budget is funded by grants and donations, including support and funding from Lourdes Health Foundation. The program earned CHA's Achievement Citation in 1990.

Sr. Helen Owens, OSF, wellness director at Lourdes Health System, started The Bridge as a way to make Camden's teens " feel loved and comfortable and to be able to gather in a nonthreatening environment."

Cell phones off

The weekly sessions haven't changed much in three decades. Unpaid youth and adult volunteers — all of them alumni or current participants — arrive early to the meeting space at Lourdes and set it up as a makeshift living room. They discuss the theme for the night — normally a topic suggested in previous weeks by The Bridge participants — and they choose the night's discussion leader and volunteer themselves to facilitate different parts of the session. The Pinardos provide ideas and support, but the volunteers direct the evening.

There are some guidelines. Flirting is not allowed, cell phones are turned off, and personal stories shared are to stay confidential. Participants and volunteer leaders may talk about managing stress, bullying, school issues, family issues, health, sexuality, or career planning — anything relevant to teens' lives.

Participants may break into small groups for more intimate conversations. They may hear a guest speaker, watch a video, make an art project or practice yoga. One recent evening, teens discussed their career aspirations and role played as their future selves performing their dream jobs.

"Not all nights are heavy," says Maria Pinardo. "Sometimes we take a weighty topic but present it in a light-hearted, fun and interactive way."

A youth facilitator closes the session with a prayer or meditation and invites participants to share as well. Renee Pinardo says as people share bits and pieces of themselves and their lives in the discussion, everyone seems to learn more about themselves and others. "They feel loved and safe and like they can be themselves. They feel they're with real friends."

Broken cycle

Maria Pinardo says the weekly sessions and the informal support system that participants establish help young people to gain the confidence and skills needed to reach their potential. She says it can be difficult for many young people in Camden — and particularly those surrounded by violence and poverty and those in broken homes — to imagine a different life. Many "have not really 'experienced' anything outside of the city. Often, if you are from Camden, you tend to stay in Camden. Even though it is a dangerous city, the prospect of leaving it exposes (the teens) to the unknown, and in reality, the unknown is often a world where these kids have to work much harder than others, due to the stigma of where they grew up."

"We help give them the skills to overcome" the barriers they face, Renee Pinardo says. And, she says, many of The Bridge participants do.

Quintana, whose mother is mentally ill, says she and her three sisters gained stability by participating in The Bridge. "My family situation at home is one of hardship. My mother, due to her disabilities, was gone for months, even years at a time, and so it fell to my sisters to raise myself and each other," Quintana says. "The Bridge, for us, provided a safe haven, a family-like environment and an escape from our situation at home."

When Quintana's older sisters were involved in The Bridge and Quintana was still a young child, Renee Pinardo and Sr. Owens helped Quintana exit a dangerous public school and secured donations and other funding to pay for her tuition, first at a Catholic elementary school and then at a college prep school. The schooling helped Quintana get into Rutgers, says Renee Pinardo.

Quintana adds: "Aside from teaching us valuable skills, The Bridge provides a support system, which I feel is the most important aspect."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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