Blog Post #18:  The Bridge to a Brighter Future, a project of the Social Innovation Fund, at one year

Solid Support for People Ready to Make a Change

Bridge program has successful first year

Judging from anecdotes and data from its first year, the Bridge to a Brighter Future is on the right track. 


For mentor Tanya James, the transformation in participants in the goal-setting pilot project has been striking. 


“It’s been really great to see people accomplish their goals,” says Tanya, the North End Community Navigator. “I’ve seen a lot of changes, in particular in their perception of themselves and their self-esteem.” 


This improved self-image provides momentum to keep moving forward, as do financial incentives and individualized mentoring that’s a BBF hallmark. 


“People feel good knowing there’s someone always there for them, always following their progress,” she says. 


BBF is one of eight projects supported by the Social Innovation Fund, a five-year, $10-million provincial investment in new ways of combatting generational poverty. Managed by Living SJ, the fund, which started funding projects in 2018, allows for approaches to be tested and scaled, if they’re working. 


Alexya Heelis, Resource Development Manager at United Way, which runs the project, says the early indicators are pointing in the right direction. 


“We are definitely seeing continued growth in goal-achievement rates,” she says. 


In  November, when they first ran the numbers, participants had hit 31 per cent of their goals. By March, that figure was over 50 per cent. 

Tanya James is a mentor with the Bridge to a Brighter Future. 

“So far every participant has been higher at their assessment than when they started."
- Tanya James
“I want us to just keep on keeping on with the clients we have. I’d like to see continuity for them.”
- Alexya Heelis
Working on "Pillars"

The bridge is a metaphor in the program, with participants working on goals in five “pillars,” including family stability, finances and well-being. When participants begin the program, they scale themselves on each pillar. They repeat the scoring again every six months. 


“So far every participant has been higher at their assessment than when they started,” Tanya says. 


“It’s a really tangible way to see their growth,” Alexya says. 


BBF is a Saint John adaptation of the successful and long-established EMPath program, out of Boston, which aims to help low-income families be economically independent. 


Mentors in the program can have a positive influence on participants, but they don’t have any power or authority over them. And that’s a good thing, Alexya says. 


“They can’t, for instance, take your kids away or stop your cheques,” she says. “So participants can be completely honest about the struggles they’re having.” 


In January, participants began meeting as a group. The hope is that a peer network forms, to expand their circle of support. 


“It’s neat to see them going to each other for help and information,” Tanya says. 


One of the big surprises in the first year has been the challenge of recruitment. 


“I thought once everyone heard about a program that has incentives, that’s long-term, what’s not to love?” Tanya says. 


She’d aimed for 10 participants in year one, recruiting six so far. They’re developing a better understanding of who’s a fit.


“It’s not for everyone,” Tanya says. “You have to be ready to make a living wage, you have to be ready to make a change, to take those steps.” 


Potential participants may face other barriers, including physical or mental health problems or lack of childcare and transportation. Mentors are able to provide funding support for things like a bus pass or babysitter, to help remove the barrier.  


Overall, though, the program is working. Alexya is making a few small tweaks, such as simplifying the application form and building exit interviews into the process. Otherwise, they’re pushing ahead.


“I want us to just keep on keeping on with the clients we have,” says. “I’d like to see continuity for them.”


She’s also working with other local non-profits to integrate BBF methodology into their coaching programs. 


The Saint John Women’s Empowerment Network, for instance, is using the BBF model in the coaching component of its Working 4 Change: Learn and Go program, which is also supported by the Social Innovation Fund. 


“I think there’s a greater application for this to the ongoing relationship with people once they leave a  program,” Alexya says. “It feels like a really natural fit.”