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Curb Crowser offered to renovate our youth lobby as a holiday gift. They did an amazing job!

How Can I Support Transgender, Non-binary or Gender Non-conforming Youth?

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Guest Post by Zan Washington (They/Them), Outreach & Support Services Manager

Is there a transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming young person in your life? If you’re cis-gender (you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), it can be difficult to understand how transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming people feel, but your support can make a huge difference.

If a young person you care about has recently come out to you, you might be wondering what you can do to help support them and help them feel safe.

As Outreach and Support Services Manager, I work with youth on various aspects of the gender spectrum, so I can give you a little advice:

  • Be supportive. If a young person has come out to you, realize that they view you as a safe person to turn to. Acknowledge them and make sure they know you love them no matter how they identify.
  • Let them define themselves. Allow young people to choose their own wardrobes, hairstyles, pronouns and name. All of these choices might change over time or even daily, but it’s okay!
  • Remind others of their gender identity. If you have extended family or community members that continue calling your child by their former name or gender, remind them to respect your child’s preferences.
  • Respect their privacy. On the other hand, if your child isn’t ready to be out publicly yet, respect that. Allow them to identify as their preferred gender only at home for a while, if that’s more comfortable for them. Don’t share their story with anyone they aren’t ready to share it with.
  • Talk to a professional. Puberty is challenging for most adolescents, but it can be particularly tough for transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming teens. Help your child access a competent therapist for any mental health issues, and talk to a medical professional if they are experiencing any gender dysphoria (the distress felt from their gender identity not matching their gender assigned at birth).
  • Don’t assume. Just because a child is transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming doesn’t mean they’ll take on the societal male/female stereotypes. A transgender boy might not like sports. A transgender girl might hate dolls. Remember that gender is just one aspect of a person’s identity – they’re still a unique individual and should be given space to explore, develop and express themselves in a way that feels comfortable for them.
  • Find help for yourself. Supporting a child as they explore their gender identity can be very demanding on their caregivers. It can be helpful to have somewhere to vent, ask questions, and process your youth’s changes. Look for a support group, online resources, and maybe a therapist of your own, so that you have people to lean on when you are struggling.

Most importantly, remember you are not alone! Many caregivers are helping their young people get through their gender identity questions and gender dysphoria. It is okay to ask questions, be confused, and grieve. Do not project these feelings onto your child and find a safe outlet to channel your emotions throughout the process. Your unwavering support can make a huge difference for the young people in your life.

Director’s Corner: A Safe Space for LGBTQ Youth

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LGBTQ youth are at a much higher risk of homelessness than their heterosexual peers. While they make up only six percent of the general population, LGBTQ young people account for more than 40 percent of homeless youth.

Many of these young people are forced out of their homes due to conflicts surrounding their sexual and gender identity.

The challenges only increase once they’re on the street. Sex trafficking is a major concern for all young people, but LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to be trafficked compared to their peers (24% versus 12%). They are also three times more likely to engage in “survival sex,” trading sex for access to food, shelter, or other necessities. LGBTQ youth also report higher rates of being robbed, assaulted, or attempting suicide.

This data is from The Center for American Progress.

These young people face a scary and difficult road, but there’s hope.

When Stephen was 15 he was kicked out of his foster home because his foster father discovered he was dating a male classmate. He had heard about The Bridge, and came here hoping to find a safe place to stay. Our case workers welcomed him, affirmed his sexuality, and facilitated family counseling sessions. After a short time, he felt safe returning to his foster home.

Stephen has continued attending our weekly support group, where he can get to know other LGBTQ youth in a safe environment.

LGBTQ young people face unique challenges, so they need unique services. We offer the longest-running support group for LGBTQ teens in the Twin Cities, formed in 1992. Our staff are also trained in LGBTQ issues, and we offer a single bedroom for transgender youth who feel more comfortable not sharing a space.

At The Bridge, we believe that every young person deserves a safe and stable home environment. Help us provide that for LGBTQ youth by donating today.

It’s Time to Move the Needle on Nonprofit Employee Pay

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I started working in the nonprofit sector a long time ago (in 1993) at the ripe old age of 19. I was so happy to have a job I loved, where I could make a difference, that I didn’t really care what they paid me. And they didn’t pay me. At that nonprofit, I worked for nothing the first year and a half and then for a $500/month stipend for the next several years before eventually moving up to a salary I was awed by ($45,000 dollars) for serving as the Executive Director.

In the years since, my salary has moved up, but the pay of direct service employees in nonprofits has remained far too low. While serving as the CEO for the YWCA of Delaware, we exceeded our financial goals and were able to award our employees a modest holiday bonus ($300 dollars each). That is really not a lot of money in a world where corporate executives fly around in corporate jets and earn 3 million plus salaries before stock options and bonuses. I must admit, I had not spent much time thinking about the salaries of direct service employees since – like most nonprofit executives – I spent most of my time scrapping and fighting for every dollar to keep the doors open.

All that changed for me the day we handed out those bonuses. After the staff meeting where the bonuses were distributed, one of our shelter staff came up to me in tears and told me about how she didn’t think she was going to be able to buy her kids Christmas presents and now she could. She was incredibly gracious and thankful but she probably had no idea how her words hit me. I felt like one of the world’s worst nonprofit leaders in that moment. I’d spent years fighting for our clients and the nonprofits I ran but it never dawned on me to fight for our employees too.

These are the people who stock the food shelves, who leave their families in the middle of the night to meet with a rape victim at the hospital, who expose themselves to danger by doing street outreach at some daring hours in some high crime areas. These are the people who have angry teenagers yell at them, spit at them and sometimes hit them, people who give up having kids or giving their kids vacations, health care, private schools or even a house to live in, all because they chose making the world a better place over money. Just because they are not motivated by money does not mean we should take advantage of them or take them for granted. Our Boards and our funders expect us to have low turnover, high morale and great program outcomes. Here is my question: how do you expect to achieve that when you are giving people an incredibly hard and incredibly heartbreaking and exhausting job and paying them barely more than poverty wages?

According to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits 2016 Salary & Benefits Report, direct care staff earned an average of $16.58 per hour. That’s $34,486 per year.

That’s barely enough for a single adult to live on – the living wage in Minnesota (defined as a wage that would provide for an average standard of living, with about a third spent on housing) for one person is $10.95 per hour. However, add just one child and the living wage leaps to $24.18. In a sector that’s devoted to improving people’s lives, it’s an embarrassment that the people doing that hands-on day-to-day work can’t even afford to raise a single child comfortably on their salary.

At the Bridge, we’re taking steps to change the status quo. In the last year and a half, we’ve added two paid holidays, improved our health insurance, and started offering a 3% match for retirement savings, as well as paying our employees more.

In May of 2017, we had our annual Board retreat to discuss our goals for the next few years and I am very proud to say that one of main goals we adopted for the next several years is to invest in our employees. We have conducted an analysis to market of what we pay our employees and agreed with our colleague nonprofits in the runaway and homeless youth sector specifically, to share information about salary and benefits with one another. We will use this information to set a financial goal for the next three years to move all of our employees to at least the 50th percentile for pay and if possible, to go higher than that. We are investing in our employees with better training and onboarding and employee driven committees to give employees an opportunity to tell us what they want to move the needle on morale. In addition, we are looking at adding things like employee wellness incentives, workplace incentives like the ability to bring your pet to work and keeping health insurance costs as low as possible. We are talking to other nonprofits and trying to spark a conversation across our sector and a movement to pay our direct service employees a real living wage.

It is pretty simple: if we invest in our employees, they invest in our organizations by becoming more engaged. When this happens, our clients receive stronger services and we achieve higher outcomes because our employees are not coming to work worried about buying food or paying their rent. Instead, they can focus on what they do best, changing the world.

To donate to The Bridge, visit

Director’s Corner: Focus on Sexually Exploited Youth (SEY)

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When a young person finds themselves homeless, it takes less than 72 hours for someone to try to recruit them into the sex trade.

Human trafficking is defined as compelling someone, through force, fraud, or coercion, to enter into the sex trade or forced labor. Most people think of human trafficking as something that happens far away, but Minneapolis, for multiple reasons, is in fact an international hub for sex trafficking of children and youth.

According to Wilder Research Center’s 2015 homelessness study, more than half of homeless youth have experienced violence and exploitation while homeless. As youth spend more and more time on the streets, their chances of being recruited, coerced and forced into the sex trade increase. Once recruited, it is incredibly difficult and life threatening for youth to escape sex trafficking.

It is imperative that everyone understands the signs of trafficking, so we can all work together to prevent young people from being victimized.

One promising strategy to highlight SEY and intervene is corporate engagement in this issue. One of these leading corporations is the Hyatt, which regularly trains its employees on how to identify potential victims in its hotels. Bridge for Youth Board member, Randy Okan, is the Assistant Director of Finance at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis and explained a few of the signs they look for:

-A minor who appears malnourished or neglected

-An adult arriving with multiple different minors over the course of one or repeated stays

-Staying for a long time without very much luggage

-A young person who doesn’t make eye contact and appears frightened

-People hanging out in hallways appearing to guard a room

Any one of these signs alone may not mean anything, but if a number of them show up, it could be a clue. Some of these indications are unique to the hotel industry, but if you work in an organization where you interact with the public it’s a great idea to research signs of trafficking that might allow you to save a life.

“I can’t imagine how vulnerable it would be, how frightening, how you would feel so trapped,” Randy said. “I feel like we, as outsiders, tend to be naïve. We wonder why victims don’t just run away, or call for help – but we don’t understand the constant fear they’re feeling.”

The youth we serve are highly at risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking. It happens right here in America, right in Minneapolis, right under our noses. We make every effort to reach homeless youth within their first couple of days, so that we can protect them from the trafficking industry.

Help us keep young people safe by donating today.

Director’s Corner: Ending Youth Homelessness?

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In 2014, the federal government announced its intention to end youth homelessness by 2020 with the End Youth Homelessness Act of 2014. As an organization that has been devoted to helping homeless young people for more than 45 years, we are excited to see the state and the nation focusing more on this population.

One great result of this increased focus has been state efforts to forge a stronger connection between Child Protective Services and the many nonprofits dedicated to helping homeless youth. Strategies to increase child protection engagement with homeless youth would make it easier for younger kids to access the resources that are available to them.

Sadly, this increased focus is not coming with increased funding. The federal budget for runaway and homeless youth programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, Family & Youth Services Bureau, has only grown from $114 million to $119 million since 2009 – a decrease when inflation is taken into account.

Right here in Minnesota, the Homeless Youth Act was funded at $8.238 million for the 2016-17 biennium. That funding can be used for programs offering prevention, outreach, drop-in centers, emergency shelters, and permanent housing. When applications for this funding came in, the total requested was more than twice the amount available.

Anything that can be done to move the needle on the number of young people experiencing homelessness will be a positive change, but it is important to be realistic about the changes that can be made in such a short period. Youth homelessness is complex and multi-faceted. Any solutions to address it need to be multi-pronged and sustained – there are no quick fixes.

Youth homelessness has actually been increasing, not decreasing, in recent years. According to Wilder Research, homelessness among unaccompanied minors in Minnesota increased by 46 percent between 2012 and 2015. Some of that may have even been caused by HUD’s diversion of funds into other homelessness-related goals, such as ending veteran’s homelessness and family homelessness. Those are worthy causes, but focusing tightly on one population, to the detriment of others, for just a few years does not help anyone.

I’m happy to see the government taking note of the epidemic of youth homelessness, and taking steps to make a difference. I hope this short-term goal turns into a long-term commitment to helping the young people who are homeless in 2020 and beyond.

Donate today to help us make a difference for homeless youth right now and for years to come.

Director’s Corner: Why Governance Matters – Why Nonprofit Boards are Critical to Nonprofit Success

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Sometimes people ask – why do nonprofits need a Board and what do they do?  The easy answer is because it is legally required (Minnesota Statute 317A.203 requires that every 501(c)(3) have at least three board members.)

More importantly, nonprofits need them and a common characteristic you will find behind every strong nonprofit, is that they have a strong and engaged Board of Directors. 

At the Bridge, we have a Board of 18 members and who act together as a Governance Board meaning they focus their skills and talents not on getting in the weeds of day-to-day activities but instead on the overall health of our organization. They play a critical role monitoring our strategic direction and performance against our goals.

More than these lofty and somewhat vague terms is the bottom line – the Board is the final point of authority for a nonprofit and the check and balance on everything we do. The Board monitors finances, compliance, and performance against established goals and perhaps most importantly, they hire and supervise the Executive Director.

Our current board chair, Scott Thomas-Forss, joined the board in 2012. He felt drawn to The Bridge after serving as an intern here during college, and wanted to help us thrive.

As a board member, he’s able to do that by asking difficult questions and sharing his professional knowledge.

“Getting a diverse board is a great way to supplement the staff’s knowledge,” he said. “They bring expertise to the agency, and offer financial, legal, marketing, and HR advice.”

The Board guides our work, checks our work and protects our organization, as stewards, ambassadors and agents. They play a huge role in fundraising – both with their own dollars and by spreading the word about the organization. Executive Directors work hard but at the end of the day, the success or failure of a nonprofit rises and falls with its Board of Directors.

Donate to The Bridge for Youth today.

From the Executive Director: Reflections on the Bridge for Youth

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It was 1970 and a fearless woman refused to ignore the growing number of runaway and homeless youth in Minneapolis. Her name was Sister Rita Steinhagen and she never accepted no as an answer and from her determination, the Bridge was born.

In 1975, the Bridge secured its property at 2200 Emerson Avenue South in Minneapolis and for many years, this property was synonymous with the identity of the Bridge. For many years, the emergency shelter program (ESP) flourished out of the house and the Bridge began to grow adding family counseling, outreach, a 24/7 crisis phone line and other services. Originally founded to focus on runaway youth and family reunification, by 2002, the Bridge was seeing a growing number of homeless youth who could not be reunified with their families and so our Transitions program was started which provides transitional housing for homeless youth who cannot return to live with their families.

The fall of 2008 saw a dramatic economic downturn across the US and as the downturn began to affect nonprofits, it began to affect the Bridge. After having flourished for so many years, the Bridge began to experience operating deficits and in an attempt to secure more funding, sought project specific grants that taxed our capacity and resulted in diluting our core strengths. Between 2008 and 2016, the Bridge struggled to regain its footing and in February of 2016, I was honored to join the organization as its new Executive Director. After founding Avenues for Homeless Youth in 1993, I have spent more than 20 years in various leadership positions in the nonprofit sector focused on organizations serving youth and families and organizational turnarounds.

My vision for the Bridge is pretty simple: strengthen the core, stabilize the organization and re-focus on what we are best at. Since February of 2016, we have accomplished many great things including:

  • Financial Health: We have dramatically improved our financial health including our cash position, debt to income ratio, finished our last fiscal year with a healthy surplus in addition to being on track to finish this year with a surplus and we have established an operating reserve.
  • Programming: Many of the programs that made the Bridge great were scaled back or eliminated completely between 2008 and 2016.  With new funding sources, we have been able to add most of these back including street outreach and being part of the Streetworks collaborative, family counseling and aftercare, crime victim’s services, job skills development and independent living skills training.
  • Focus: We have wound down programs that were either mission drift or not aligned with our core principles and values.
  • Board: Our Board of Directors has grown, become more engaged in fundraising and oversight and become a strong governance Board.
  • Employees: We have improved our employee training and onboarding process in addition to making deeper investments in our employees in order to be able to recruit and retain a stronger workforce.  Some of these investments include: better health insurance, a retirement plan with an employer match, increased paid holidays and employee engagement committees.

As we look to the future, we look forward to continuing to strengthen our programs, particularly ESP, formalize our programs by incorporating evidence based, best practice models for service delivery, particularly in job training and independent living skills services. And perhaps most exciting, 2200 Emerson, empty since 2014, will re-open in early 2018 as “Rita’s House.” Once open, Rita’s House will provide affordable rental housing to twelve, 18-21 year old homeless youth in a safe, supportive environment paired with supportive services.

The number of homeless youth continues to grow nationally and locally. This is sad and unfortunate but we are very proud of the fact that the Bridge is in a stronger and more stable position to continue serving these youth today, tomorrow and until there are no longer homeless youth.

Click here to support our mission.

Success Story: Whitney Blount Smith

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Whitney Blount Smith was only 15 when she was legally emancipated. That big moment was just one step on a long path to independence.

Whitney took this picture in front of Transitions in 2009, on the day she moved in to the dorms at Augsburg College.

Whitney’s mother was an addict, and she ran away multiple times in her early teens because it wasn’t safe to stay at home. During one of those periods, she found her way to The Bridge. Counseling helped her return home, but the stability didn’t last.

Even after being emancipated, Smith felt a responsibility to her younger brother, who was ten years old at the time. “I stayed with my mom for about a year after that, because I wanted to be there for him,” she said.

Finally, she realized she had to move out in order to move forward in her own life. That’s when she found her way to Transitions.

“The Bridge was a haven for my safety and growth when I was in high school,” she said.

Whitney spent parts of her junior and senior year living at The Bridge, where she received counseling for trauma and depression. In Transitions, she found a safe place where she could learn how to take care of herself and work toward her goals. She still remembers the day she received her acceptance letter to Augsburg College.

Today, Whitney is a valued employee of Penumbra Theatre.

“Everyone was freaking out with me,” she said. “It was really beautiful, it felt like I had been accepted into a family outside of my blood.”

She graduated with a double major in Creative Writing and Sociology, and a minor in Social Welfare. She started working part time at Penumbra Theatre after graduating, and has worked herself up in the past 2.5 years to Executive Assistant.

“It’s taken a lot to get here. I have a lot of lumps and the scars to show for it,” Whitney said. “But looking at where I am, I’m proud of what I’ve overcome.”


We’re proud of Whitney, too. To help young people like Whitney reach their full potential, donate today.