By Tony Graves
Special to The Commercial Appeal
I attended Central High School in the late 1980s, when it was about 70 percent African-American. Everybody got along; we did everything together. It was a great atmosphere.
When I returned home from college in 1992, Memphis didn’t look or feel like what I remembered. Racial tensions and an increasing divide between public and private schools — none of it felt like the city I loved. I wanted to change that.
I talked to my friend Becky Wilson, who founded the Bridge Builders program. She introduced me to BRIDGES. I worked first with the Kickoff Classic event, which brought public and private high school football players together to learn about each other — on and off the field. In 2006, I accepted a seat on the BRIDGES board. What I didn’t know was that the work that I found so vital had its roots 90 years in the past.
It began as a simple church mission project in 1922. A handful of women from Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral set out to help “wayward and delinquent women and girls over 16 who found themselves in difﬁculty.”
Over the next 40 years, the agency expanded its mission to include boys and young men. When it was incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 1962, the seeds of today’s BRIDGES were sown.
Rev. Donald E. Mowery served as executive director of the program, then known as Youth Service in Memphis, until 1995. Father Don took the work to the streets, taking the bold step to be the first youth agency to integrate its programs. He was an advocate for all youths in Memphis throughout the civil rights era and the times of unrest that followed.
In 1988, Becky Wilson proposed the Bridge Builders program to Mowery. Her idea was to bring high school students from diverse backgrounds together for activities that would develop leadership and forge ties among future leaders.
It started with two schools — Northside and Briarcrest — and 40 youths, and now serves 4,500 students from public, private, parochial and home schools across Memphis and the Mid-South.
After Mowery’s retirement in 1995, Rev. Jim Boyd was named president, and the organization was renamed BRIDGES. Jim brought a new energy and vision to the agency. Part of that vision took shape in 2004, when the BRIDGES Center was completed in Uptown Memphis. Eco-friendly and built for kids, the building was designed to facilitate the hands-on, experiential learning BRIDGES has become known for.
Those volunteers from Calvary and St. Mary’s had no way of knowing that their “Church Mission of Help” would grow into a program bringing youth of every gender, race, religion and economic background together to learn about themselves and each other.
Today, BRIDGES is the premier youth organization in the Memphis area. It may no longer be “faith-based,” but BRIDGES still is, and will always be, based in faith — faith in the power to change the world that lies inside every young person.
Now in its 90th year, BRIDGES is at a crossroads. Even before the arrival of new president Cynthia Ham earlier this year, the program was preparing to expand.
Under Cynthia’s leadership and with the support of generous donors, it is poised to serve more and more young people in grades 6-12 with high- quality, comprehensive programming and an increased ability to track progress.
Last week, more than 300 young people spent the day at BRIDGES studying the lives and work of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And just two days ago, we hosted a sold-out luncheon featuring Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.
What started in a church basement is encouraging and equipping thousands of youths to reach across, lead the way and build community. Memphis is — and increasingly will be — a better place because of BRIDGES.
The Memphis that BRIDGES is building looks a lot like the Memphis of my youth.
Tony Graves is president of Wilson Investment Management LLC and chairman of the BRIDGES Board of Trustees.