By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Meharry Medical College’s Building Resources and Initiatives to Develop Growth and Enrichment to Success (B.R.I.D.G.E.) Program has been a valuable resource to Davidson County residents, but the crises of last year’s storms and COVID-19 pandemic have significantly increased the community’s need for assistance.

B.R.I.D.G.E. is a four-year program seeking to change the overall dynamics of the families they serve by focusing services around four core components: education, workforce development, health and wellness, and social change, said Program Director Tarryn Bell. Honing in on middle and high school students, the program helps participating children and caregivers increase each family’s capacity for meeting the gap of generational wealth and sustaining that change.

“Minorities are living at a higher poverty rate in comparison to their counterparts,” Bell said. Nashville has experienced a lot of growth in the last five years, she added, and in the city’s northern region there’s a dire need of families for access to vital resources to curb generational poverty and generate economic security. While the program initially focused its efforts there, statistics showed several areas in the city would benefit and the program got approval to expand its services countywide.

Last year, the program held job readiness and interviewing workshops along with courses on nutrition and healthy living, financial literacy and pathways to home ownership. Bell said the B.R.I.D.G.E. program hasn’t been able to provide in-person social events for engagement and participation but the team has “continued to work together creatively to make good on their promise despite the pandemic.”

“This is when our current families need help the most,” said Bell.

Launched last year with a state-funded grant via the Department of Human Services, B.R.I.D.G.E., currently in its second year, is set to expire December 31, 2023.

“The program is doing well considering the pandemic,” Bell said, adding she’s looking forward to seeing both established and new faces.  The staff would love for freshmen and sophomores to enroll and matriculate success over their high school experience, Bell said. Once the child is 18 and graduates they are no longer eligible for the program. While middle school student progress can be tracked the best practice is to have families with B.R.I.D.G.E. through the entire high school experience to ready them for higher education, she continued.

Eligible participants must be Davidson County residents and children in the household must attend one of 35 community-achieved schools within the Metro Nashville Public School system. Students must also receive free or reduced lunch at school and participation of parents in the program is mandatory. 

“B.R.I.D.G.E.S. is not a one-size-fits-all program,” Bell said. “We ask for feedback and gather data to make sure we’re paying attention to what every family needs rather than assuming the organization knows what’s best for everyone. We want to make sure they feel their voices are heard.”

The program instituted a virtual academy last fall because families needed additional education assistance due to being quarantined during the pandemic.

Nella Frierson, who goes by Ms. Pearl, is a participant in the B.R.I.D.G.E. program along with her two grandchildren, Troi Milton and Amir Allen Bufford. Troi, 14, is passionate about entrepreneurship and attends Hillsboro High School while Amir, 11, is a student of J.T. Creswell School.

“I’m beyond grateful that they exist,” Ms. Pearl said. “This [program] is really important but it’s more crucial now. They talk to you like you’re important, that you matter.”

She said she wanted to participate especially because of the tutorship offered with the program. She was attending school herself and heard about B.R.I.D.G.E. through a case worker from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“It was more help than I anticipated,” Ms. Pearl said, adding that her career counselor held her hand through the whole process. “They have programs like workforce development and job readiness to help you learn Google [navigation] and social media marketing.” It gave her hope, as she’d felt navigating those tools to be too cumbersome and complicated.

That’s important to Ms. Pearl, who runs a nonprofit community garden that offers more than just fresh fruits and vegetables. An herb and healthy food garden, Brooklyn Heights Community Garden/Urban Farm produces a food justice series and holds “Soul-Filled Sundays’’ to congregate and build self-awareness, she said, as well as Market Day. Soaps, oils and tinctures made from their 50 herbs along with educational classes on their creation can also be found at the community garden located on Haynes Street.

Struggling to keep stability for herself and her family, Ms. Pearl knew something was missing. “The foundation was not there,” she recalled. 

Ms. Pearl said the nonprofit was crowdfunding when Meharry stepped in and helped meet the remaining needed funds. gave the community farm a $1k grant for its completion. Now she’s writing a book commissioned by Vanderbilt, “You Work, You Eat.”

“We do need donations and everybody is welcome,” she said.

The help with her community garden was exciting, but what she and her grandchildren really needed was health care, she said. “I can’t convey how I feel because I’ll be 65 and my teeth are important. They have stepped in at a crucial point.”

She shared words of wisdom that she lives by: “Start where we are, use what we have, do what we must– just get busy. We must be the change that we speak of,” she said.

For more information on Ms. Pearl’s Brooklyn Heights Community Garden, call 615-474-2887 or email her at brooklynhcgarden@gmail.com.

B.R.I.D.G.E. can also, albeit sparingly, provide assistance for students who don’t have the technological resources for online learning by connecting them with internet providers and payment of bills.  The program has assisted families with needs, clothing, food and complimentary annual health and dental care with Meharry. The cost is covered on an annual basis for medical care and semi-annual for dental care. 

For more information on Meharry’s B.R.I.D.G.E. program visit  bridgesatmeharry.org. You can also call 615-327-6981.