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Reflecting on Ferguson this Thanksgiving

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Dan Pfarr, Executive Director The Bridge for Youth


It’s a challenging week to celebrate Thanksgiving with all of the social unrest and protests happening across the country related to the events in Ferguson, MO. These events have highlighted the fact that so many Americans are left out of the decision-making process and are experiencing bias and racism on a daily basis.   For me, it brings up a series of questions about our work at The Bridge and what we are trying to accomplish.  Over 50% of the youth that we serve are African American.  The youth and their families are living in one of the most inequitable communities in the country.  We don’t have to look any further than our own backyard to see one of the biggest gaps in education and economic opportunity for communities of color.


In essence, Ferguson is a picture of our own reality and reflects the political and social conditions that exist right here.  As an agency, I am asking for us to be engaged in the issues that affect us the most.  The issue of racial inequity, imprisonment of our young black men, social, educational, and economic bias all has a tremendous impact on the youth and families we serve.  Understanding these factors and how racism affects our community is necessary if we are going to be part of the solution.


With all of this sad reality in our midst, I am still grateful for a number of things and hopeful for change as we move forward.  As you can see by the protests, we are relatively free to express our views, write editorials, speak to each other about these issues, and vote.  This is a right we all have and should exercise.  I am also thankful that we have each other to stand against injustice and work toward a more just future.  We are stronger as a group than we are alone!


As I said before, we have an obligation as part of our work to pay attention to the issues that affect our youth and to speak out.  Over the next few days whether you are spending time with your family, working on the floor, or traveling to see friends, keep your freedoms in mind and your solidarity to what is happening in Ferguson and here at home.


Thank you for your commitment to The Bridge and the youth and families we serve–

Justice, Equity, and LGBT Youth at work in Minneapolis

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Dan PhotoOn my first day at The Bridge, I sat down to talk with the kids who were staying at the shelter that day. They shared with me their stories of why they were at The Bridge for Youth.

Unfortunately, the too-common theme was one that we at The Bridge hear hundreds of times a year. The variations of this story are different but the result is always the same:

“I’m being bullied at school.”

“My mother kicked me out of the house.”

“I don’t belong.”

“Nobody supports or loves me.”

“I’m angry and depressed.”

“I have turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with my true feelings”

And, as the story line often plays out for these teens,  “It’s because I am gay.”

I thought I had understood this problem, but what I realized after talking to these kids was just how different my version of the story was from what they had experienced in their own lives.

We live in a period of great social change.  Gay marriage has become the norm in many states. Sports figures, politicians are coming out publicly and speaking about their identities and encouraging the young to resist bullying.

For those of you who are in college, this is normal. But I can assure you, as I approach my 50th birthday this year, that this is not at all the case.

Back in 1983, when I graduated from high school in rural Minnesota, there was no one in my class who was openly gay.

  • In 1981, Tennis player Billie Jean King became the first prominent professional athlete to come out as a lesbian–due to this, a year later, she had lost all of her celebrity endorsements.
  • In1988 – Sweden is the first country to pass laws protecting homosexual regarding social services, taxes, and inheritances
  • In1989 — Denmark is the first country in the world to enact registered partnership laws (like a civil union) for same-sex couples
  • 1992–Homosexuality no longer an illness according to The World Health Organization

While we have seen enormous progress, of course, bias and discrimination still exist.

Recently, the Star Tribune reported that, “Gay Marriage hit a roadblock in four states where a federal appeals court upheld laws against same-sex marriage creating a legal split that increase the chances the Supreme Court will take up the issue.”

If you are a youth and you want to come out, all of these societal conflicts about gay marriage, gay rights, bias and discrimination make you feel as if something is wrong with whom you are.

Why do certain politicians keep fighting about policies that ensure rights? Why do we keep sending a negative message to youth about this issue? Do we not understand how the very questioning of these issues can send a negative message to youth who just want to be recognized for who they are?

Shortly after becoming the Executive Director at the Bridge, I was interviewed by Greg Lewis who was traveling the country seeking information and advice from organizations that had successfully worked with gay youth.

Since 1970, The Bridge for Youth has been one of those organizations that has, sometimes quietly, served, respected, and honored LGBT teens across Minnesota and their families and the broader community. There is a sign at the entrance of Bridge that says, “A safe place for everyone” and has a multi-colored rainbow to let kids know that we are open regardless of who you are or want to be.

Greg was doing this work on behalf of a group called The True Colors Fund which was co-founded by Cyndi Lauper to raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth homelessness, and to inspire everyone, especially straight people, to become active participants in the advancement of equality for all.

Homelessness knows nothing of age or race or gender. It can happen to anybody. But when statistics show that 3-5% of the overall youth population is LGBTQ, compared to as many as 40% of the nation’s homeless youth that are gay or transgender, then we have to acknowledge that we’re facing a crisis.

The disparity suggests that gay and transgender youth stand a much higher chance of becoming homeless because of abuse, neglect and familial rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity that drive them to the streets.

From that interview, and dozens of other interviews, Cyndi Lauper’s 40 to None Project was born. The 40 to None project’s goal is to reduce youth homelessness among LGBTQ from the nearly 40 percent to 0.

In 1974, one of our local heroes, Vice President Walter Mondale, helped to champion the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. This act supported funding for shelters like the bridge to provide housing and services for homeless youth. While this act has been a great resource for funding for many of our organizations, it never required inclusionary language that would require services to all youth regardless of gender orientation or sexual preference. Amazing, isn’t it? This bill does not currently have protections for certain youth to protect against discrimination.

The reauthorization for this bill calls for nondiscrimination clause to ensure that all youth are treated fairly, including LGBT youth. This ensures that the programs and services provided by the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act will benefit homeless LGBT youth; and that they benefit fairly and equally from these services. The reauthorization also provides best practice guides for culturally and competent care for all youth seeking shelter, including LGBT youth and victims of human trafficking, violence, and exploitation.

My friends, on the 40th anniversary of this law, this language must be changed and the law must include these protections. This would require that all programs that receive federal funding to prevent youth homeless must have best practice plans to provide services to LGBTQ youth.

Recently, a partnership with 40 to None and Covenant House, the largest homeless youth organization, with programs in 27 cities across the nation, was announced that will make sure that they are following best practices when it comes to serving LGBTQ youth. This will ensure that thousands of youth in their shelters will not be turned away because they are gay.

Two years ago the Bridge received generous funding from the United Way to support our programing for LGBTQ youth across the Twin Cities.  Because of that funding from the “Arise Project”, we created a brand new position at The Bridge called the LGBTQ Outreach Manager.  Kristan Clow who has worked at the Bridge for 5 years, was the natural candidate for this position. We were proud to support this new initiative of our programming.  However, not everyone was as enthused about this new project as we were.

One day, a long-time donor to The Bridge for Youth stepped into my office with a message. He sat across from me and told me that “The Bridge for Youth was becoming too gay.” He had been seeing too many messages in the past year that supported and acknowledged gay youth and their struggles.” The donor concluded our meeting by telling me that this would probably be the last year that he and his wife would be supporting The Bridge for Youth.

As Executive Director, you might think that I was sad to see this man’s funding leave. But in fact, I felt proud. I felt glad that the message that we were sending about youth was reaching an audience that obviously needed to hear the stories that we were telling.

Friends, I will trade dollars every day, for justice and equity. This friends, champions, and allies, is the right decision for youth!

Back to School and Homeless Youth

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getty_rf_photo_of_teen_boy_locker_girlsNew lockers.  New teachers.  Peer pressure. It’s enough to send any adolescent into a frenzy.

For homeless kids, the start of the school year is even tougher.  There’s lot of anxiety about not having new clothes or supplies to start the school year.  And, missing a school day here of there makes it tough to stay on top of school assignments.

Based in Minneapolis, The Bridge for Youth, a 24-hour emergency shelter for 10-17 year olds, is busy.  On a September morning, children in the emergency shelter include a 16-year old who missed the first day of school.  She was abandoned by her parent a few days before school started.  A 14-year old boy, who’s family is homeless, is at The Bridge until his family finds a permanent place to live.  Another teen in residence, awaits a move to another state to live with her Grandmother. Home is no longer safe for her here.

Getting these children off to school is a priority for staff at The Bridge.  “Kids see school as their future,” said shelter worker Debbie Schultz.  “Despite challenges at home, they really want to be in school.”  Shultz spent the morning calling schools trying to track down homework assignments for kids staying in the Emergency Shelter.

The Bridge for Youth meets the basic needs of children in crisis.  Staff greet every child with a warm smile, offering  a snack or something to drink.  Children share a bedroom with another youth and receive home cooked meals.  Transportation is provided to school.

The more challenging work is assessing needs, building repoire, and working with family to repair and mend strained relationships through counseling.  Nearly 80% of youth are reunified with family, and of those, 20% continue to access services after their first visit.

Case managers like Debbie Shultz work extra hard with youth who can’t return home.  Child Protective Services are contacted and longer term options must be explored.  For others, next of kin may might provide an option.

In its 43 year history, The Bridge for Youth has served over 40,000 children. Many return as adults, thanking the organization and its staff for helping ease a difficult adolescence.

Greater Twin Cities United Way contributions provide a significant portion of the agency’s $3 million budget.



Fathers, Family, and The Bridge for Youth

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Dan Pfarr is Executive Director at The Bridge for Youth

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family. As some of you might know, my father passed away two weeks ago today and often when you lose a family member, you realize the importance of family and how all of those relationships have shaped you into the person that you are.

My father was an extraordinary man. He helped to raise 8 children on a traditional family farm, he was involved in local township politics, a member of the school board, and even ran for state representative as an independent candidate back in the 1980s. (this was before being independent was cool)

My dad raised a family back in the days when Farm families had no health insurance. Those were days when food was plenty, but cash was scarce; and when the church, the 4H club and the local softball team were part of an incredible support system that supported my family.

My dad also battled with Parkinson’s for 16 years and with the support of my sisters’ loving care, and the help of the extended community, he was able to remain on the family farm for as long as possible.

Our family benefited from the support of the community!

Families are complicated. Even in the best of times, when everything might seem to be going your way, parenting can be difficult/rough.

When you add in financial troubles, mental health issues, divorce, addiction, and physical health issues into the picture…then things can really begin to unravel in a hurry.

So much of what we do at the bridge is about providing support for parents and their kids.

We know, that it’s not programs that change people’s lives.  It’s the people and the relationships that change lives.  It’s the people and our relationships with one another that keeps all of us going each and every day.

Over the last 44 years, The Bridge for Youth has served close to 40,000 youth and families in crisis. This, my friends, is extraordinary!

Each time a youth comes through the front door at The Bridge, there’s an opportunity for something very great to happen.

There’s an opportunity for someone to have a good night’s sleep without any fear.

There’s the opportunity, that someone who is running from a life that has become absolutely unbearable because of abuse and hatred, will be treated with kindness and respect.

There’s the opportunity, that someone will—maybe for the very first time–feel that they can trust another person enough to share their story, their secret, and by doing so, begin to find a way to bridge the pain and find a safe place to heal.

What I’ve learned, especially these last two weeks, is that no family can thrive without having a support system that surrounds them both in good times and bad.

For many families, The Bridge for Youth is part of that support system and helps families find ways to work things out…and find a positive way to move forward.

Black History Day at The Bridge

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Black History Day 2014

Black History Day panelists Judge Martha Holton Dimick, Bob Brisco, and Adrian Mack visit on February 27.

Over a soul-food feast of barbequed ribs, black beans and rice, and fresh peach cobbler, employees, youth,  and friends gathered at The Bridge for the agency’s annual celebration of Black History.

The multi-generational event,  marked by traditional food, music, poetry, is one way the agency showcases its  commitment to diversity.

This year’s celebration featured a trio of performance artists.  Poet and playwright Karla Smith performed an original spoken-word performance about songstress and civil rights leader Nina Simone.  A second piece, engaged the audience in rhythmic drumming. setting the stage for a narrative about Harriet Tubman.  A third peformance , “A Rose By Any Other Name is Still a Rose, ” addressed contemporary issues of black identity.

Youth counselor Michelle Hall, always a favorite performer, collaborated with a teen, to read, “A World Without Black People.”

Following the performance, Board Member Tonya Hampton, Senior Director of Diversity at Health Partners, led a panel discussion about civil rights.  Panelists included Minnesota Judge Martha Holton Dimick,  Minneapolis Police Civilian Review member Bob Brisco, and Community Activist Adrian Mack.

Youth Sex Trafficking in Minnesota: How does it start?

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sey_youthIt’s hard not to notice 14-year old,  Jasmine.  With a winning smile and a personality to match,  she lights up a room.

Like other girls her age, Jasmine enjoys clothes, boys, and adventure.  She loves hanging out with friends and dislikes the restrictions her Mother tries to impose upon her.

Jasmine works at keeping things fun.  In a group of friends, she doesn’t have to think about what’s happening at home.

For the past three years, Jasmine’s Mom has struggled with addiction.  In and out of treatment, her Mom has been unable to stay employed.  Jasmine and her two siblings have bounced around from apartment to apartment, and now are doubled up with relatives.

No one’s paying much attention to Jasmine.  Hurt, lonely, and longing for stability, Jasmine runs away, taking refuge at a “friend’s” apartment.  The “friend” is charismatic, good-looking 19 year-old Jay.  Jasmine always felt important when Jay complimented  her on her good looks.   Jay treated Jasmine like an adult and she felt a thrill when she was able to command his attention.

Jasmine stayed for a few days at Jay’s, where she was treated royally.  She returned home but continued to seek Jay out.  Soon, she was bragging to her friends that she had a new boyfriend.  She belonged to someone important.

A few months into their relationship, Jay began testing Jasmine. First, she asked her to dance at a private party.  Jasmine was a good dancer and she didn’t want to disappoint Jay.  She convinced herself that the dancing was no big deal.

The dancing was a big deal.  It marked a change in Jasmine and Jay’s relationship.  Jay began to demand more of Jasmine.  When she tried to refuse, Jay countered with violence and threats.

How many girls like Jasmine seek attention and love while underestimating risks to their personal safety and well-being?  When does a bad situation become life-altering?

In Minnesota, the average age at which a girl commercially trafficked for sex al sex is thirteen.  The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota reports that each month in Minnesota 214 girls are trafficked several times a day through the internet and

Identifying children on the cusp of commercial exploitation is critical to prevention, yet it’s difficult.

“There are a lot of stories that kids want to keep  hidden,”  said David Mathews, Director of Clinical Programs at The Bridge for Youth.  ” Creating a safe environment for kids and building trust are essential to helping young victims.”

In January 2014,  a new Minnesota law, decriminalizing prostitution for children 16 and under, went into effect.  Instead of treating these minors as criminals and taking them to jail, law enforcement now sees these youth as victims.  They are more likely to be returned home or brought to a place like The Bridge for Youth,  a therapeutic shelter just for children ages 10-17.

With the onset of the Safe Harbors Act, David Mathews and his team at The Bridge for Youth developed a new intake procedures to help identify youth at-risk for or engaged in commercial exploitation.  Teams have also developed  new counseling approaches to help with intervention and healing for this target population.

One such approach, Restorative Parenting, aims to re-engage parents with their children despite the presence of significant emotional trauma. “It’s never too late for a parent to re-build a connection with their child, even in the face of something like violence, sexual abuse, or sex trafficking.

For additional information, attend The Bridge for Youth’s educational forum, “Youth Sex Trafficking: Who is at risk? Where does it start?” on Tuesday, March 18 from 2:00 -4:00 p.m. at Temple Israel.



Program Spotlight: The Crisis Hotline

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A crisis can happen at any hour.   Day or night.

It’s 11 p.m. and your child has runaway…again.

You’ve called the police.  But the worry, the fear, the guilt is overwhelming.  Is it possible to change the family dynamics that continue to pull you and your teen apart?

Calling The Bridge is a place to start.

The Bridge’s 24 hour crisis hotline is staffed by professionals round the clock.  Each caller connects with a live person, not an automated system.

In 2013, over 4000 people in crisis phoned The Bridge.  75% of those callers were adults – overwhelmed, frustrated, and scared parents.  Or neighbors or teachers worried about a child.  Others were likely social workers advocating on behalf of their young clients.

Every calls demands a unique response.  Some parents just need to vent so that things don’t escalate.  Others are desperate for tips and strategies to deploy immediately.

In addition to diffusing immediate crisis, counselors encourage parents to visit The Bridge for free counseling – with or without their kids.  And, when it’s clear that kids and their parents might benefit from time apart, counselors might recommend a teen stay in the Emergency Shelter.

“We’re hear to support parents and kids in whatever way we can,” said Joan Countryman, Emergency Services Supervisor.

Post The Bridge’s crisis hotline number at school, in your place of employment, or at your church.  You could save a life.   612-377-8800.

Seeing the Gift in Every Child

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Jane McDonald, Sister

Along with co-founders Rita Steinhagen and Marlene Berghiini, former Sister of St Joseph, Jane McDonald helped launch The Bridge for Youth in the 1970s. Now 78 years old, McDonald returned for a visit to The Bridge almost 30 years later.

“The kids were wronged.  And, they were enraged.  Many suffered from physical abuse.  And, at the end of the day, that’s what we took home in our hearts.”

That’s  how Jane McDonald, a St. of St. Joseph nun, recalled  her experience working at The Bridge in its early days.   On a sub-zero January day, the 78-year old McDonald  visited  The Bridge.  Nearly 30 years had passed since she worked counseling runaway teens and their families.

McDonald worked alongside Marlene Berghini, who co-founded The Bridge with Rita Steinhagen.  All three were members of the Sister’s of St. Joseph.

Known for their unwavering commitment to peace and social justice, these pioneers launched The Bridge in the 1970’s.  Their legacy is significant.  Since 1970, The Bridge has served over 40,000 children in crisis.

McDonald’s  recollections working with young people mirrored  the experiences of staff working at The Bridge today.

“We used to sit in the kitchen and play cards with the kids,” McDonald said.  “That was a way to get them talking”.

Commenting that most kids stayed for a few days, as they do today, McDonald stressed that listening was the most important thing.  “And, gradually, we felt  our presence made a difference in each child’s life”.

Touring the Transitions program on The Bridge’s third floor, McDonald admired the colorful, multi-cultural mural in the living room.  Her attention, however, was drawn to  three teenage girls sitting in the room.  They eyed the elder entering their space with  suspicion.

With  curiosity, McDonald approached each girl, asking each her name, and  repeating each name.  The introduction was brief but notable for the dignity and care McDonald took with each girl.

Later,  Jane swapped stories with ten-year Bridge for Youth veteran, Shirley Carter.   The conversation flowed easily as the two found much in common.   Yet midstream, McDonald paused.  A thought flickered across her face.

“Those children,” she said,  recalling her tour just twenty minutes ago.   “Each one of them had beauty.”

Perhaps that was McDonald’s spiritual antenna at work.  Her attentiveness to the work of The Bridge did seem fine-tuned.   That’s a lesson that all of us here at The Bridge will try to embrace each day.













“Sounds of Giving” Holiday CD benefits The Bridge

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Click to get your Holiday CD today!

Nestled in the heart of Minneapolis’ hip Northeast neighborhood,  RiverRock Studios (formerly WaterBury Studios) houses state of the art recording systems and sound booths.  Owner Joe Morris dreamed about putting that technology to work – beyond the usual recording gigs.

Owners Joe Morris and Eric Blomquist wondered how they could put their technology to work beyond the usual recording gigs. They didn’t need to look far for inspiration.

Joe’s wife, Teresa is a regular volunteer at The Bridge, working as a Family and Youth Counselor  for the past three years.  She plays an important role helping families heal from conflict.  Teresa and Joe combined their interests with a project to support The Bridge.

SOG Back cover

CD includes 10 holiday tracks.

“We had the studio and the technology,” said Joe.  “We thought it would be fun to encourage local musicians to work together on a holiday CD.  That would build awareness of The Bridge and would help raise money for the agency.”

Blomquist, owner and engineer, recruited legendary keyboard player Tommy Barbarella (formerly with Prince) to produce a holiday CD with proceeds benefiting The Bridge.

The musically well-connected Barberella put the word out to local A-list musicians.  Eleven artists, including Voice contestant Nicholas David, signed on to record “Sounds of Giving”, a compilation of holiday classics (Joy to the World, O Holy Night, Merry Christmas Baby) and two original tunes.

“It was really fun to record Sounds of Giving,”  said Barbarella.  “We had such strong talent and every musician supported our vision of giving back to the community,  and helping those struggling with family conflict.”

Barbarella and Blomquist teamed up and created an absolutely wonderful and memorable Holiday CD.

Sounds of Giving is available with a $25 donation to The Bridge.  Order online and the  CD will  ship same day.  CDs will also be available at these musical venues:

Sounds of Giving Musicians Performance.  Thursday, November 12:  Icehouse, 9:30 p.m.

Sarah Morris Holiday Show,  Wednesday, December 18, Dakota Jazz Club

Davina and The Vagabonds, Friday, December 20, Dakota Jazz Club


Record-Breaking Day for The Bridge

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Thank you to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.   Their generous gift 3:1 matching gift, timed to coincide with Give to the Max Day, made for a banner day of support for The Bridge for Youth.

“With the support of the Hilton Foundation, we raised over $50,000 on Give to the Max Day,” said Annie Nelson, Director of External Relations at The Bridge. “This was a record-breaking day for us and for the children we provide service to.”

The record-breaking donation occurred despite a 5-hour shut down from the Give to the Max and Razoo systems.

“We appreciate the support from so many of our steady supporters and from new donors, too, ” said Nelson.

It was no coincidence that the Hilton  gift was announced in November.  Since 2007, the month has been known as  National Homelessness Awareness month, when Congress passed a resolution to bring greater awareness to the problem of  homelessness.  In the U.S. an estimated 1.6 million children are homeless each year, and the majority of these children are 15 and 16.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has a long history supporting initiatives that confront American and international youth.  With the start of the new millenia, the foundation has  backed efforts that address foster care and homelessness.

Conrad Hilton III, grandson of Hilton Hotel founder Conrad Hilton, has Minnesota roots.  In a visit to The Bridge last month he commented about the   many challenges can  adversely affect a youth’s transition to adulthood.

” We support the idea that investing in youth today leads to better outcomes tomorrow,” he said.  “For over 50 years, we have supported the work of Catholic Sisters worldwide and  their efficient use of a dollar and their selfless devotion to shelter and care for each individual child.”

“Likewise, it is our pleasure to support The Bridge’s efforts in Minneapolis in looking after and providing shelter to its children,” he added.