Fresno Bridge Academy to expand with $12.2 million USDA grant

Two years ago, Valeria Leon was attending Reedley College part time, working slowly toward her dream of becoming a health care interpreter while caring for her young children alone.

The 22-year-old Fresno resident worried she wouldn’t make it, struggling to navigate school without being able to afford child care. Then she got a phone call.

“I call it the miracle phone call because it opened all these doors,” she said.

The person at the other end explained to Leon that she could get help through the Fresno Bridge Academy, a program contracted by the county’s Department of Social Services that works to get people off public assistance and into meaningful jobs. Program leaders announced Thursday they will expand it over the next three years with a $12.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant — one of 10 in the country.

After joining Bridge, Leon received free child care through Fresno County and became a full-time student. She graduated and has worked as a medical interpreter for the past six months.

“I’m self-employed now,” she said. “It feels really good.”

To qualify for Bridge, adults must be legally allowed to work in the U.S. and be receiving food stamps. Most of those enrolled are Latina women.

In Fresno County, 228,000 people, including children, receive food stamps. Of those, 91,000 adults qualify for Bridge. And of those, 50% are unemployed.

Bridge is unique for its holistic approach, helping families by working with parents and children simultaneously. The adults receive 18 months of job training and support through workshops covering a variety of topics, such as parenting skills, resume building and computer training. Children get help with reading and math, English language learning and exposure to the arts.

The support goes beyond jobs. Leon’s case manager also helped her become a U.S. citizen. She was a legal resident when she first joined the program.

Bridge started in 2010 with 127 families as a demonstration project. In 2012, leaders took their positive results to Fresno County, partnering with Reading and Beyond to expand services. Since then, more than 1,000 have graduated. Among those in the second group, from October 2012 to last month, 77% graduated. Of those, 80% received raises or promotions and 32% became self-reliant, no longer needing government assistance.

Another 800 people are on track to graduate from the program by September 2017. Leaders hope to graduate another 1,500 people through the pilot expansion and ensure that at least half achieve self-reliance by the end.

The program will go from serving residents in three communities — southeast Fresno, the Lowell neighborhood and Coalinga — to nine, adding sites in central and west Fresno, Pinedale, Ed Dorado Park, Kerman and Reedley.

Bridge leaders calculated its benefits so far. They found that for every $1 spent on the program, taxpayers and participants get back $22.28. That’s taking into account reduced food stamp costs and increased tax contributions by newly working families. They also found that, on average, participants saw a $284 monthly wage increase by the end.

Founder Pete Weber said programs like Bridge require the community to come together — local government working with nonprofits and the public sector to help people navigate the maze of public assistance and deliver holistic pathways out of cyclical poverty.

“This is a story about families living in Fresno’s poorest neighborhoods and making their way out of poverty,” he said.