It's a drizzly Wednesday morning in January and the Bridge 2 Success building at 3409 Baseline Road in Little Rock is mostly empty. The classrooms, 25 computers, pool tables and kitchen are all unused right now.
But in a few hours this place, which was once a Family Dollar store, will be filled with students just out of school who have come here free of charge for tutoring, to do homework, socialize, have a snack and play. "We call this their 'Happy Place,'" says Bridge 2 Success founder Ronald Wilkerson. "They can come here and be safe. It's a place where they can come and escape the hassles of life."
Wilkerson started the nonprofit Bridge 2 Success in 2011 because "we saw a need in the southwest Little Rock community for youth to be engaged in something with a positive atmosphere. ... We offer a safe location and an environment where they can learn and
grow." Students ages 6-19 are welcome in the program and there are 40-60 who come Monday-Friday after school, Wilkerson says.
Staff members and volunteers help students with communication skills, conflict resolution and work with them if they are having trouble with subjects like math and reading.
"We can say that since we have been here, we have helped to graduate students every year," Wilkinson says. "Last year was our biggest year. We had 18 students graduate high school."
Tawanda Bryant's son, Cameron, was one of those 2019 graduates and will attend University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College in August. She also has three younger children in the program -- high school senior Trevien, 10-year-old Marquevien and 8-year-old Trinity.
"It's a great program that is very beneficial to the kids," Bryant says. "They do a lot for them."
Wilkerson, 67, is a Little Rock native and graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1970. He served in the Navy and later worked for the Veterans Administration, the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service before retiring. He has a master's degree in divinity and is a minister at Faith Temple Deliverance Church of God in Christ, which is next-door to Bridge 2 Success.
His wife, Carolyn, is a part of the Bridge 2 Success staff, teaching math and reading to third- and fourth-graders; their son, Roderick, works with teenage boys in the program.
Carolyn Wilkerson helped Bryant's son, Marquevien, improve his math scores.
"His math grade was way down at the beginning of the year," Bryant says. "It was hard for him to catch on. The way we were explaining it to him at home and the way they were explaining it at school, he wasn't getting it. But Mrs. Carolyn took her time one-on-one with him for about a week and his grade is now an A."
Beyond school subjects, Ronald Wilkerson says the program helps students with life skills. "We teach them how to deal with issues, we teach them how to resolve conflicts by talking it through ... most issues are not resolved because people don't sit down and talk about it. They jump to conclusions and end up doing something they regret."
When students are on summer vacation, Bridge 2 Success doesn't take a break. The space is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday during the summer with activities and meals.
"We are open year-round and we focus on academics year-round," Wilkerson says.
Participants are taken to see the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA play, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, to Hot Springs, sites around Little Rock and other day-trip destinations.
"We try to take them to places they never forget," Wilkerson says.
Older students are given chances to play basketball, go to the movies, take college trips, visit museums and do community work.
"They have adopted Hilaro Springs Road to keep clean," Wilkerson says. "We try to keep them busy and engaged."
Local business leaders and other professionals also give talks to the students. But speakers don't always include those telling traditional success stories.
"We have people from every walk of life," Wilkerson says. "We have homeless people come talk. We have ex-convicts talk aboutwhat it is like to go to prison. We try to cover life. We don't want our children to lose at life. We want them to have an opportunity."
Young people are actively recruited for the program.
"We may see kids walking down the street and stop them and ask if they know who we are," Wilkerson says. "We may hand them a flier or ask them to come visit. Most of the time they know someone here. We also engage with the school district to find out who those troubled kids are and offer them our services."
Bridge 2 Success has a paid staff of six, most of whom have college degrees, and also are helped by volunteers, Wilkerson says. The program receives a $75,000 grant yearly from the city and gets by on donations and fundraisers to cover the rest of its costs, which run to about $300,000 yearly, he says.
In June, the group held its first awards luncheon, honoring Little Rock City Director Joan Adcock, philanthropist and clothier Fawzi Barakat and McClellan High School student and Bridge 2 Success participant Jeremiah Aikins. Wilkerson says the awards luncheon will become an annual June event that recognizes those who help the community and achievements by Bridge 2 Success students.