A new West Side nonprofit is seeking to connect Austin residents, particularly youth, to economic opportunities.
Bridges for Humanity, at 5811 W. Chicago Ave., is an outreach organization using a three-pronged approach.
The first element involves assisting ex-offenders re-enter society and find employment.
“Bridges has developed a partnership with several other organizations like South Austin Coalition to offer assistance for former inmates after they have been released,” said founder James Russell.
“We want to help them find job training programs, seek out GED preparatory courses and find housing so that they can get back on their feet.”
The second aspect focuses on creating entrepreneurial opportunities within the community, both through seminars and a specific business venture.
“We’ve partnered with Charter One to conduct seminars on business and [grade school] classroom management. I have also convened a planning committee to discuss the prospect of opening up a new bakery in Austin,” said Russell, a native of Chicago Heights who has worked for the Chicago Public Schools on the West Side.
“When you look at the businesses in Austin, one thing you notice is that there are a lot of retail and service shops. But not many places where people actually make things. That makes it difficult to invest money back into the community,” Russell said.
The third element of Bridges’ mission involves making minority students more accessible to opportunities for financial assistance if they chose to attend college.
Bridges has a partnership with Harvard University to offer scholarships to minority students fitting guidelines for admission.
“This is a great partnership,” said Russell. “Harvard will offer scholarships to students with an ACT score of 22 to 24, a GPA of 3.2 and parents with a combined income of $60,000 per year or less. This is one of the most fulfilling aspects of this organization. We want to have an impact on the lives of many students.”
Russell, 68, worked with a business colleague to open Bridges in December, shortly after his retirement from Orr Academy High School in West Garfield Park, where he taught for 12 years.
“As a teacher, I got to really see the plight of our youth and the horrific conditions that many of them are faced with,” Russell told Austin Weekly. “Many of my students simply didn’t have the resources or opportunities that they deserved and this nonprofit venture was my way of tackling both the economic and educational future of our youth.”
Although its goals are as lofty as its name suggests, Bridges is still very much in its infancy as an organization. “Well, the baby’s been born. It’s just trying to get its legs underneath it,” Russell says.
Consequently, Bridges, like most community-based nonprofits, is still dealing with the issue of securing the funding to allow the organization to fully enact its initiatives.
“Many of the programs, like the one addressing re-entry, are still in their early stages as funding limitations have prevented us from doing everything we have planned to do,” Russell said. He intends to add housing for ex-offenders so that Bridges can offer that service directly.