Second in a series
On paper, 17-year-old James Johnson is just another of Charlotte's 10th-grade dropouts.
But his story is one complicated by years of hard luck, including five days his family spent trapped in a flooded New Orleans church after Hurricane Katrina.
Life as an evacuee has been tumultuous for him, including one failed fresh start after another. But Johnson is hoping that's all about to change with the help of the BRIDGE Jobs Program, one of the smaller charities supported by United Way of Central Carolinas.
The program and its staff of five have but one goal: To help dropouts finish school and find full-time jobs.
Johnson, who lives with his grandmother Dolores McGuffey, expects to get his GED in December. Both are evacuees from New Orleans. His dreams include getting his first job to make her proud.
“My life was so off track that I couldn't focus on school,” says Johnson, whose misadventures included losing his mother for two weeks when they were forced to board different evacuee buses headed to different states. “I had to realize that my past is gone. This program has me working on a plan.”
Last year, BRIDGE helped about 300 people find work, 75 percent of whom were teens who'd never held a job. However, the program makes it a point to accept dropouts of any age and currently has some students in their 40s.
It is considered one of the United Way's lesser-known charities, based on the fact that it received only $6,400 in designated donations last year. United Way provides 40 percent of the program's money, by dipping into a pool of undesignated money called the Community Care Fund.
Should the United Way's annual campaign suffer this year as predicted, BRIDGE would be among the hardest hit.
“We're the last stop for 16- to 18-year-old dropouts who don't fit into other programs,” says Patricia Heard, executive director of BRIDGE. “Maybe they're on probation, or they don't have a stable address, or some other reason. We service anybody who doesn't fit into other programs.”
This includes the middle class, who are often disqualified from government programs because of their parents' income, she says. “Many of those other programs send clients to us,” says Heard. “Our program is an intervention. We help them set goals and work towards an end. The ones who end up on our door step are the ones you can't give a manual and expect them to figure it out.”
Of late, she says, the program has seen an increase in referrals due to the nation's faltering economy. All classes are now running at capacity, with students including a lot of adults who have either been laid off or want to improve the economic status.
Sonja McLean, 36, says she was referred by Goodwill Industries. McLean has been working full time since she was 16, but never earned a high school diploma. Her four daughters are grown now, and she has decided it's time to get her GED and achieve the dream of being a registered nurse.
“I'm anxious, but not ashamed at all of being around all those young people in class,” she says. “This is something I really want, and nothing is going to get in my way. It's not too late, as long as I'm breathing.”