NORMAN — “Sidney” is a formerly homeless youth who found shelter through the Bridges Norman program. She attends high school, works, pays rent and is rebuilding her life.
“I’ve been at Bridges for eight months now,” said Sidney, 17. “To most of the kids here, it’s pretty important to have this safe environment.”
Without Bridges, Sidney said she would be bouncing from couch to couch, always in transition, always looking for the next safe place to stay. That uncertainty affected her school attendance, and she had little hope of graduating high school.
Since being at Bridges, life has gotten a lot better for the young woman.
“I’ve improved with my school work and attendance,” she said. “I’m hoping to go to college, maybe do something with the law.”
Sidney is just one of many continuing success stories for Bridges, which is a family crisis living center.
“About 90 percent of our kids over the last five years have gone on to some kind of higher ed,” Bridges Director Debra Krittenbrink said.
The support provided through mentorship and tutoring helps students stay in school and get their high school degrees and beyond. But the program also is about students learning to take care of themselves.
“To be in our program is really hard,” Krittenbrink said. “They have to have a job and keep their grades up. They support themselves. You have to be really mature and focused to succeed in this program.”
Safety is an issue for these vulnerable youth, many of whom have been traumatized in the past.
“In April and May, when we had the tornadoes, I was living here,” Sidney said. “That was pretty intense because we don’t really have a storm shelter. We have the student center, but if it was a big storm, we probably wouldn’t be safe. I don’t like tornadoes, so it was terrifying for me.”
Bridges staff is committed to building a tornado safe room.
“For Bridges students, many of whom are being treated for PTSD due to past abuse and neglect, a shelter is a critical need,” Krittenbrink said. “Because they are anxious anyway, the possibility of a tornado is scarier than it might be to the average teen.”
Sidney said while a few teens showed fearless bravado during the spring storms, many were stressed out by the experience.
“Everyone seemed pretty nervous, you know, like, jittery, watching the news,” Sidney said.
Bridges staff implements a procedure for severe weather, but having a tornado shelter would be ideal.
“Our current storm plan, if there is a warning at night when day staff isn’t available, is for the two resident advisors to open the student center and let the kids stay there,” Krittenbrink said. “The group shelters in the two bathrooms on the inside walls of the facility.
“If the kids are caught in their apartments, we tell them to go in the bathtub and pile mattresses and pillows on top of them. In light of recent storms, this solution is woefully inadequate. In fact, because they were so scared, a resident advisor brought a group of students to the basement in my house one night last spring.”
Funding to pay for the proposed safe room has been hard to find, so Bridges is reaching out to private donors.
“In-ground shelters are much cheaper than safe rooms,” Krittenbrink said. “I could get one that would accommodate up to 15 people installed in the student center garage for around $7,000.
“However, when I consider the problems that could arise because of the very tight space and students with claustrophobia and look at the recent research ... I feel that an above-ground safe room is the way to go.
“I am asking for an 8-foot-by-10-foot structure that can accommodate up to 20 and be located on the north wall of the student center, accessible through a door in an office,” Krittenbrink said. “This would be an EF-5-rated steel structure clad in brick to match the student center and attached to the existing building, so that it would blend in.”
Bridges has 20 apartments with one teenager living in each.
“They have to be going to high school in Norman. Most of our kids are between 16 and 18,” Krittenbrink said.
Most of the teens at Bridges are there because their parents are deceased, incarcerated, homeless or are unable to provide a safe environment.
Krittenbrink said it is virtually impossible to find foster care for teens. As an alternative to foster care, Bridges provides comprehensive case management and independent living skills in a safe environment.
“Just because a student is on their own, they do not get into our program,” Krittenbrink said.
Prospective clients are screened for need and their ability to live independently.
“When a student gets into our program, we focus on education, but we also get medical, dental and psychological care and cover school needs, including tutoring,” Krittenbrink said. “We work with the overall student, not just with their educational needs or financial needs.”
With storms over for a time, Sidney is working hard to have the future her parents never had. She said she witnessed their difficult lives, and now that she has a way out, she wants to grab on to the opportunity Bridges is providing.
Meanwhile, she’s hoping Bridges will have a tornado shelter before spring comes around.
Anyone wishing to donate to the safe room project can visit bridgesnorman.org and click the donate button to contribute via credit card.
Checks can be mailed to Bridges at 1670 Stubbeman Ave., Norman, OK 73069. Donors are asked to put “safe room” in the memo line.