Bridging the Gap

September-October 1999


Ms. Bones is a freelance writer in Media, PA.

One Hospital Found That Reaching Young People Is as Simple as Listening

Mike Torres first went to the Bridge because he tagged along with a friend who was meeting his girlfriend there. Miguel Rubert went because he thought he and his friends were heading to a video arcade across the bridge in Philadelphia. And Marisol Colon went simply because she wanted a reason to get out of her house. But despite the varying reasons these three Camden, NJ, teenagers first attended the Bridge, a support group for teens and young adults, their reasons for returning were the same: They all felt that — finally — someone listened to them.

"At first, I was just laughing to myself because kids were sharing the most intimate details of their life," recalls Mike Torres, now a detective for the city of Camden and the mayor's bodyguard. "But later that night, I realized that there must be something special about the Bridge that would enable kids to talk openly to strangers. That's what made me go back. It couldn't have happened at a better time, because my parents had split and my brothers had left our house, so, at 17, I was living alone and very vulnerable."

Miguel Rubert, currently an investigator for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, recalls his first Bridge encounter: "I was about 13 and lived in what they call the 'danger zone' section of Camden. I thought we were going to Philly to play video games, and when we got to the Bridge, I thought, this stinks, there's no video games, no radio, no TV, just an empty room. I said 'I'm never coming to this place again.' Then the kids started talking — kids from different neighborhoods who usually argue or fight — and I thought 'Wow, this is amazing.' And then the magic just took over and I went back to the Bridge every week."

"I liked the Bridge right away because it was about us," recalls Marisol Colon, now a school counselor. "It was never boring and we talked about issues concerning what we were doing at the time."

Today, all three "Bridge kids" are in their twenties and maintain strong connections with the group by serving as adult volunteers. Like other young people from the Camden area, they tell how a simple program like the Bridge changed the direction of their lives.

The Bridge's Beginnings
The Bridge began in 1979, when Sr. Helen Owens, OSF, RN, founder of the Wellness Center at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, NJ, and its vice president of mission, wanted to form a program for the young adults that she met while visiting Camden during her home nursing duties.

She observed that there were many programs in the area for youth who were in trouble, but nothing for those who were trying to avoid trouble. Along with Rev. Michael Mannion, STL, former chaplain at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and now executive director of Blackwood Retreat House in Blackwood, NJ, Sr. Owens decided to go directly "to the source" by gathering young people from Camden and surrounding areas and asking them what type of group they would like.

One of the young people in the gathering was Renée Pinardo, a 20-year-old mother of a three-year-old. Pinardo and her peers met with Sr. Owens and Fr. Mannion and talked about what might have prevented some of their problems.

Their surroundings were not exactly swank. They met in an abandoned building and tried to make it homey by adding an old carpet and pieces of furniture from someone's attic. They didn't advertise the meetings, but kids told their friends and they told their cousins, and before long Tuesday evenings at the Bridge were packed.

The guidelines at the Bridge were — and still are — simple. The Bridge starts promptly at 7:30 pm. Young people run the show. No one is laughed at or judged. If someone has a problem, the others listen.

Finding Acceptance and Respect
While other teen programs in the Camden area have come and gone, the Bridge remains a fixture.

"The Bridge attracts kids because they are totally accepted, respected, and cared about," explains Pinardo. "It focuses on the dignity of the person, communication skills, conflict resolution, and getting through life."

"There is no right or wrong at the Bridge, you just say how you feel," says Torres. "You can vent at the Bridge, and you can turn a negative into a positive."

Adds Rubert, "The Bridge is no oasis to problem solving, but it is an outlet, another option for teens. I liked the fact that the Bridge was always there if a kid needed a place to chill out, to get to know new kids, to talk, or to just listen."

Almost two decades after she stumbled into the Bridge, Pinardo is a certified social worker who serves as director of the Bridge. To introduce teens to new experiences, Pinardo regularly invites dynamic speakers to the Bridge.

"Renée knows that she doesn't know everything, so she includes experts in different fields who are able to hold kids' attention," says Rubert. "Whether it's representatives of different professions, or a volunteer from Women Against Rape, she makes sure they know how to talk to teens."

Pinardo trains young people to serve as youth leaders at Bridge meetings, and, although she and other adult volunteers are present, the young people facilitate the meetings.

"The adult staff talk when it's helpful, but mostly we are there to serve as role models for the youth," says volunteer Kathleen Byrnes, assistant dean of students at Villanova University.

"Volunteers give to the Bridge unconditionally because it's like a second family; in fact, for some of them, it is their family," Pinardo says.

Pinardo unabashedly credits the Bridge with changing her life.

"The Bridge is a big part of who I am and what I've become. When I came here, a new kind of energy started to infiltrate my life," she explains. "It's not a job but a ministry, my life's mission."

Torres also credits the Bridge with turning his life around. "If it weren't for the Bridge, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I learned about goal setting and values. I had friends who were leading me into a drug gang, but being a part of the Bridge enabled me not to choose that route. Reneé and the Bridge are lifesavers."

The Secret of Success
In 1990 the Bridge won a Catholic Health Association Achievement Citation, and in 1991 the Bridge received the Allegheny St. Francis Award for an outstanding program exemplifying the Franciscan mission of the Allegheny Health System. People always ask Pinardo: What's the secret of the Bridge's success?

She answers without hesitation, "It's all about recognizing and respecting young people. Even when I work with kids who are incarcerated, I receive a high level of respect from them because I give it to them."

Under the umbrella of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, the Bridge was the first program sponsored by the Lourdes Wellness Center, an innovative holistic health program that now serves about 30,000 individuals a year. Since 1983, the program has also been funded by United Way.

The Bridge's current home is a trailer located in a doctor's parking lot across the street from the medical center. Through the years, visitors from the surrounding tristate area have observed Bridge meetings, and, as a result, many offshoot Bridge programs exist today.

Pinardo says the mission of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center to focus on the community and the dignity of each person is evident in its continued sponsorship of the Bridge, a program that reaps no financial reward for the hospital.

Her advice to other hospitals who want to reach out to young people in their community?

"The program is simple. Basically what you need are a few individuals who are committed and really care about young people. Giving the kids ownership of the program is essential, and if they have that, they'll come," says Pinardo.

Adds Rubert, "It's not done with money, it's done with communication, some compassion and a passion for kids."

Providing a living room setting for meetings — no matter how modest — is also helpful to encourage communication during Bridge gatherings.

"Kids today are no different than they were when we started the Bridge almost 20 years ago," says Pinardo. "Most of all, they need to be listened to. People are so quick to give them advice, but if they took the time to listen quietly and with a nonjudgmental ear, many problems and conflicts could be avoided or solved."

Listening, of course, takes time. But with simple, thoughtful programs like the Bridge, Pinardo says young people have the opportunity to blossom.

"It doesn't happen overnight because kids have to feel comfortable first, but it does happen," says Pinardo.

"Just jump on the bandwagon and do it," says Torres. "You'll be surprised how many kids in the community will get involved in a program like this where there are no barriers, where you can be yourself, and where everyone is treated the same."

For more information, call Reneé Pinardo at 609-869-3122.


Copyright © 1999 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Bridging the Gap

Copyright © 1999 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.