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By Sue Sprang

PLAINWELL – In part 1 of “Crossing Bridges”, the Mackinac Bridge was used as an example of what entails to build a bridge. Part 2 looks at Hope Lutheran Church, Plainwell, and its involvement in a community effort to build Bridges of Hope.

Bridges of Hope Allegan County is a non-profit, faith-based organization with Hope Lutheran, St. Stephen Episcopal, First United Methodist, and First Presbyterian Churches, all of Plainwell, and St. Margaret Catholic Church, Otsego, at its core. Other groups are connected by interest.

Children from Gun River Mobile Home Park benefit from a summer program that includes lunch, enrichment activities, and field trips.

Children from Gun River Mobile Home Park benefit from a summer program that includes lunch, enrichment activities, and field trips.

Spurred by Hope member Jennifer Loftus, Bridges of Hope’s mission is “to help bridge individuals in Allegan County from poverty to lifetime sustainability”. The name takes on a double connotation, with there being three bridges connecting community to community and with people building bridges of compassion and concern.

In 2011, Loftus, who has long been an advocate for those in poverty, attended a Bridges Out of Poverty (www.ahaprocess.com/solutions/community/) workshop in Cincinnati, wanting to learn more about poverty’s roots, struggles, and truths, hoping to apply what she brought back to Allegan County toward a more intentional and coalesced outreach to those who live on the edge and beyond.

Bridges Out of Poverty teaches the community what poverty really is,” Loftus said, “and what it isn’t.”

It didn’t take long for Bridges of Hope volunteer Nancy Heilrg (First Presbyterian) to learn about poverty when she connected with a Gun River Mobile Home Park, considered to be one of the community’s poorest areas.  She began by bringing backpack lunches for kids to the trailer park’s community center once a week during the summer months.

Gun River Mobile Home Park residents attend a workshop on job resumes and interview skills at the park’s community center.

Gun River Mobile Home Park residents attend a workshop on job resumes and interview skills at the park’s community center.

“I didn’t know what poverty was until I went there,” Heilrg said, citing lack of utilities or access to laundry facilities as two examples. “[Bridges of Hope] is one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever been involved in… and to see the kids… the summer program brings them joy. Sometimes they don’t have that.”

The once-a-week lunch summer program has grown into a summer program that includes lunch, enrichment activities, and occasional field trips.

Donna Gorton (St. Stephen Episcopal) believes community awareness about poverty is essential in order to break down the myths or stereotypes imposed by society.

“Everybody has their own strengths, skill sets, and priorities – but they may not match those of the middle class,” she said.

Getting Ahead helps young people shape their dreams into goals for the future. Staying Ahead helps them overcome any barriers they encounter to achieving their goals.

Getting Ahead helps young people shape their dreams into goals for the future. Staying Ahead helps them overcome any barriers they encounter to achieving their goals.

Also, those in poverty often don’t have the luxury of planning into the future. They are focused on today: feeding the family; transportation or medical needs; limited or no computer access for school assignments, job searches, human services information; dealing with no heat or electricity; etc.

One of Bridges of Hope’s successful programs, Getting Ahead, is designed to help teens/young adults address the future and give them the tools and support needed to look beyond today.

The 16-week class, meeting 1½ to two hours per week, is led by a facilitator and the participants are called “investigators”.  Conversation and study focus on questions such as: “Where are you now?” “Where to you want to be?” “What are your strengths?” “Do you have strong relationships?” Encouragement, identifying skills, and gaining tools also help in steering participants beyond today.

Two Getting Ahead groups focus on teen moms without high school diplomas.

“These moms are desperate for information that none of their peers are dealing with at all,” Loftus said. “They want futures for their kids. They have no social time.”

The moms support and learn from each other through conversation and through learning parenting skills.

Getting Ahead graduates, March 2016

Getting Ahead graduates, March 2016

Adult education is offered through Getting Ahead for those “seeking to learn skills to get themselves out of tough financial times”. Financial incentives help participants stay on track. They receive a $10 stipend per session, plus an additional $10 per session at the end of the class. Child care is also provided.

This is but a glimpse of Bridges of Hope’s work with, for, and on behalf of those in poverty.

Hope Lutheran’s pastor, Kari Fast, is a steady presence among the organization’s board.

“My role is one of support… to keep us walking together,” she said, “…talking through disagreements. These [board members] are a driving force with big hearts and a big desire.”

As one who has lived in poverty and knows the myths and stereotypes tagged to it, Loftus brings personal experience to table.

“Hope is what we’re trying to bring to people; we’re learning from each other,” she said. “I have pride. I’ve been there.”

Fast sums up the work of God’s people as modeled by Jesus.

“We are being church together,” she said, “working as the church in its truest form – no strings attached, no expectations… just pure love.”

Bridges of Hope Allegan County is a 100% volunteer organization. 2015 funding sources include United Way; Hope Lutheran and First United Methodist Churches, Plainwell; Community Foundation; North/West Michigan Synod; and the ELCA. Find out more about Bridges of Hope on Facebook or at http://volunteer.acuw.org/agency/detail/?agency_id=47263.