NORMAN — Bridges Norman expanded the services it provides to at-risk youth by setting up permanent spaces inside both of the city’s high schools.
Starting this fall semester, a classroom at Norman High and an office at Norman North will give the non-profit a consistent space where it can meet the students in their day-to-day lives, Executive Director Stacy Bruce said. Bridges offers housing and services to high school students who would otherwise be homeless.
“We kind of see it being an extension of the program we already offer, just without the apartment,” Bruce said.
Bridges provides housing, food and care to high school students and offers access to case workers, mentors, therapists and similar services. Bruce said similar access will be provided in the spaces at the high schools.
In addition, Bridges will be in a better position to meet with at-risk youth and provide assistance. In some cases, Bruce said this could help prevent youth homelessness.
“The idea was to go into the schools and meet students where they are,” Bruce said.
There are many cases where nothing can prevent a high school student from needing the housing Bridges provides, Bruce said. But there are some services Bridges already offers that can be used to keep a student in their home and with their family.
“We can fill some gaps so those guardians don’t get too tired," Bruce said.
Bridges will also be hiring part-time coordinator positions for the expansion. A grant through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, thanks to the Ken and Gae Rees Family Foundation, provided the funds.
In her efforts to win the grant, Bruce said she focused on prevention, something Bridges has been trying to do for the past few years. Many nonprofits offer both prevention and treatment options in various fields, and Bruce said she wanted to do the same with Bridges.
“So I started to take that approach and just see what do we do. And that’s not as easy to clarify,” Bruce said. “Once a student moves onto Bridges property, let’s call that treatment. We’re treating youth homelessness. So then it backed me into how could we prevent it in the first place?”
The factors that bring high school students to Bridges — like incarcerated family member, death in the family, aged out of foster care — are so numerous that it’s hard to find a primary reason, Bruce said. But if Bridges could provide services to families, such as help paying a bill to keep a student inside a home, it could prove to be better for the student and more cost effective over time.
“I know that because of this grant I can pay those two bills for them, because it’s cheaper for us to do that than it is for us as a community to serve them as homeless individuals,” Bruce said.
Within the last year, Bruce and other Bridges representatives have been holding life skills classes at Norman North and Norman High. These range from teaching students how to balance a checkbook, to doing taxes, and even how to form healthy relationships.
The expansion of Bridges services is building off of those life skills classes, Bruce said. It will also provide Bridges students with places to go when they need to talk to someone or simply take a moment to focus.
“And we want to provide a safe, secure space,” Bruce said. “If some feeling or emotion has triggered something during the day, you can come in there and recuperate and settle down before going back to the classroom.”
Bridges and Norman Public Schools already work together to provide students resources. Bruce said this is just another way the two entities will collaborate to help at-risk students and a way to take some of the burden off of school counselors.
“They have always been so completely supportive of what we do,” Bruce said of NPS. “We serve the same students, right? They have been so open to us being in the school and helping. What we want to do is help their counselors.
“If we can take care of food, the housing, insurance and stuff that falls outside of school, then the student can focus more inside the school.”