It isn’t set on a verdant campus studded with lovely ivy-covered buildings, nor does it boast a long list of lauded alumni — at least, not yet. In fact, many people drive past its location at East 36th Street and Euclid Avenue every day and fail to notice it exists.
But NewBridge Cleveland may be one of the most important educational facilities outside of colleges in the Greater Cleveland area. The nonprofit provides underemployed and unemployed adults with the training needed to become a phlebotomist, pharmacy technician or hospital nursing assistant — positions with benefits that pay a median starting salary of $27,000 a year. It also hosts a youth arts program for high-school freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, primarily from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and nearby charter schools, that offers instruction in ceramics, digital photography, graphic design and music recording and production three days a week after school and during the summer.
The successes NewBridge has achieved during its six years of existence are heartening. Executive Director Bethany Friedlander says the adult training programs have enrolled 284 students, from 14 in 2011 to 131 last year. Eighty-six percent land jobs in their fields within six months of graduation. Similarly, 100 percent of students who faithfully attend the youth arts program graduate from high school, according to board chair Oliver “Pudge” Henkel.
“It’s really [about] trying to transition young people, to help bridge the gap between adversity and success by offering education and providing opportunities and inspiring hope to disadvantaged youth and adults in urban Cleveland,” Henkel says of the organization’s mission.
According to Henkel, NewBridge’s programs are modeled after those of Manchester Bidwell, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that Cleveland Foundation president and CEO Ronn Richard learned about while attending a 2009 conference where its leader was speaking. A duly impressed Richard, along with staff, began working to develop a similar organization in Cleveland. They decided to focus on training adults for health care jobs they knew existed in the city. Henkel, then chief external affairs officer at Cleveland Clinic, was among the handful of community members recruited to help formulate programs, select a location to lease and outfit it with the necessary spaces and equipment. He and his colleagues familiarized themselves with Manchester Bidwell’s long track record of success.
“We were relatively confident that the model works,” he says.
NewBridge opened its doors in late 2010 with a full slate of youth arts programs for ninth-graders staffed by teaching artists. Over the next four years, the organization gradually began accepting sophomores, juniors and seniors. In 2011, it launched a 14-week phlebotomy program taught by full-time instructors, followed by a 24-week pharmacy-technician program in 2012. A 10-week program for training hospital nursing assistants was added just last year.
“The hospitals have such a need for these entry-level jobs in the nursing profession,” Henkel says.
Applicants are carefully screened for those coveted seats in the training programs, which provide free tuition, books, supplies, uniforms and RTA bus passes for travel to and from classes, as well as “soft skills” training that includes how to dress and conduct oneself during interviews and in the workplace. Most applicants are in their mid-20s to mid-30s — the youngest, 18; the oldest, 62. They must have a high school diploma or GED; undergo a criminal background test and drug testing; pass reading, math and map- and-chart-reading tests; and complete multiple interviews. Friedlander says many applicants have tried and failed, for whatever reason, to complete some sort of post-secondary education, often at a for-profit institution. Therefore, they truly value the training NewBridge offers.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to cry when they get their scholarship,” she says.
Similarly, participants in the youth arts program receive free instruction in their chosen craft(s), supplies, bus fare, even a substantial snack provided in partnership with the Cleveland Food Bank. “That’s a really important piece,” Friedlander notes. “Some of those kids aren’t going to have dinner.”
An on-premises gallery displays the students’ work; some choose to sell items to visitors, a transaction in which 80 percent is paid to the artist and 20 percent retained by NewBridge to purchase art materials.
“We’ve sold over $12,000 worth of student artwork since our opening,” Friedlander says. This semester NewBridge placed eight music recording and production students in UForward, a free House of Blues program for high schoolers that provides an introduction to and beginning preparation for careers in the live-entertainment industry. And the Cleveland Institute of Art will present a full four-year scholarship to one of the program’s graduating seniors this spring, the second awarded in as many years. But Henkel stresses that the youth arts program’s goal is not to produce artists.
“We want to engage the students in the process of learning so that when they go back to their formal classrooms in high school, they will be a much more engaged student, and it will drive them toward graduation,” he explains.
Henkel says that board members and senior staffers are looking to expand NewBridge’s funding beyond philanthropic support. Among the options being considered is charging employers a fee for each phlebotomist, pharmacy technician and hospital nursing assistant placed with them, providing soft-skills training to other organizations’ employees and government funding. The monies are needed for objectives such as working with more potential partners — Henkel mentions the Cleveland Job Corps — to develop more training programs. He envisions creating a multi-building campus for NewBridge one day.
“The opportunities for us are pretty unlimited,” Henkel declares.