Episode 5: Chris Stewart of The Bridge of Topeka

By Clint Patty, J.D.

Clint Patty:

Well, hello there. Welcome to Investing in Good, a podcast that shines a spotlight on those making a profound impact within Northeast Kansas. This podcast is proudly presented by Clayton Wealth Partners, your partner in philanthropic financial planning for individual donors and investment management for endowments, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. In each episode, we’re going to sit down with the remarkable leaders and dedicated workers of nonprofits across the state of Kansas. We’re going to listen to their stories, learn about their causes, and talk about the challenges they have in making the lives of Kansans better each and every day. So stay tuned now as we delve into our next inspiring story on Investing in Good.

Welcome to another edition of Investing in Good. I am Clint Patty, the managing partner at Clayton Wealth Partners. It is my pleasure today to have another wonderful guest here in the studio with us, someone I’ve known and admired for a long, long time. Chris Stewart is the executive director of The Bridge of Topeka. Chris, welcome.

Chris Stewart:

Thank you. I think you just told everybody that I’m old or maybe that we’re both old. I’ve known him for a long, long time.

Clint Patty:

That’s all relative is what I’m discovering over time.

Chris Stewart:

True story.

Clint Patty:

I like to say older. Getting older. I never want to get old. I think just older was the word I like to use.

Chris Stewart:

I agree.

Clint Patty:

So tell us a little bit about yourself, Chris, how you got to Topeka and how you’ve gotten where you’ve gotten as executive director of The Bridge. Take us not from the very beginning, but from a reasonable time back to where you are today.

Chris Stewart:

I grew up in the Kansas City area and met my wife while I was a student at the University of Kansas Rock Chalk. And we moved to Memphis, Tennessee where I attended seminary and worked with an urban ministry called Memphis Urban Ministry and was having a real good time doing that, enjoying my work, enjoying family. But my wife is a Topeka girl and wanted to be back around family. And so in 2001 we found a place to work and a place to live and moved back to Topeka. I didn’t know much about Topeka, but we moved in, and I love Topeka. We’ve been here since late 2001, and it’s home.

Clint Patty:

I think that’s about the time we met because we were neighbors with your in-laws.

Chris Stewart:

Right.

Clint Patty:

I think we moved in in 2000, and then you guys came here, and we all got introduced. And so when you first got here, you didn’t start with The Bridge, right? You had another ministry you were doing.

Chris Stewart:

Right. I was pastoring a small church and worked with them for about five years, but had an itch. I had been doing urban ministry in Memphis and had an itch to get back into that, and that’s a long story, but that’s how we got into The Bridge.

Clint Patty:

Well, roll back just a little bit and talk about your urban ministry experience. A lot of people hear the words urban ministry and they may not know exactly what that means. So what were you doing in Memphis that you would describe as urban ministry?

Chris Stewart:

While I was in seminary, I worked with an urban church plant, a suburban church. Started a church right in the heart of the city right across the street from the two largest public housing projects. I was in my mid-20s. And so they actually sold what would’ve been a 1982 Oldsmobile station wagon. And the ministry director said, “Hey, I’m going to sell this to you cheap, but there’s a catch. You have to drive it on Wednesday nights to pick kids up in the neighborhood and bring them to our power hour, our kids’ Bible study.” And so I would drive through the hood, and we called it the UAV, the Urban Assault Vehicle, and just piled kids into the back of this thing. And at one point we had 17 children piled into this big old boat of a car and taking them to church.

Clint Patty:

That’s fantastic. And so you had that experience. You’ve moved back to Topeka in 2001. You’ve worked in a church for a few years, and now you’ve got the itch again. Talk about forming The Bridge.

Chris Stewart:

The Bridge, a group of us at the church started talking and just had a strong desire to do something outside the four walls, just a group of people that wanted to do good. And we had a long time relationship at that point with Meadows Elementary right near downtown Topeka here. Great school, interesting demographics where it’s located geographically and therefore demographically. And so we started thinking, “Okay, where can we scratch where the school itches?” And a lot of people told us after school programs, helping kids right after school was a good way to serve. And so it would’ve been the summer of 2007, we finally decided as a church that’s what we were going to do.

And I walked into the office at Meadows the last day of summer school and everybody was scurrying around trying to get out for their summer break, and I was trying to get somebody’s attention. I ended up just raising my voice and hollering across the office, “Hey, Deb, my church wants to start an afterschool program.” And before I finished my sentence, everything got quiet and heads swiveled, looked in my direction, and I said, “Uh-oh what did I say wrong?” And it wasn’t because I’d said anything wrong, it’s because they had an itch that needed scratched.

Clint Patty:

They were probably shocked.

Chris Stewart:

What is he talking about? And so that was the beginning of The Bridge. We started an afterschool program, and it just continued to grow over the years. And here we are.

Clint Patty:

Well, it’s a program that I know serves all of Shawnee County really throughout the county, but talk about that growth and specifically what programs The Bridge offers kids.

Chris Stewart:

So as I said, we started as an afterschool program. The heart all along was I guess the word for it is mentoring. We wanted to connect with kids. And one of the ways I described that is I read an article years ago by a sociologist, and he begins with, “Every kid needs five adult fans. Every kid needs five adult fans.” And he goes on to explain that kids who grow up with the white picket fence, mom, dad, 1.5 siblings, a dog and a cat, they need five adult fans, people that are just rooting for them that are not their parents. And then consider kids that don’t have that, don’t have the white picket fence, only have a single mom raising them. Those kids need fans in their life. And so The Bridge became a mentoring program. We moved on from the afterschool program, became less academic and more about people connecting with kids, just strong, strong conviction. The answer to people’s problems is more often than not, it’s other people. It’s connection. People need people.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, there’s no question about that. And the science now that they have behind that and studying mentoring, I talked about this actually on one other podcast where I will tell you, you told me that story probably 15 years ago or more about everybody needing five adult fans in their life. And I’ve shared that over and over again. And I remember at the time you telling me, “Look, we may be able to put one or two and fill that gap. Now they only need three where they may not have had any before,” and the math starts to tilt more in their favor when it’s that way. Talk about how those specific mentoring programs work. If I’m somebody in the community that’s interested in being a mentor with The Bridge, how do your programs connect me to these kids?

Chris Stewart:

Now we’ve grown and settled in our programming and our strategies. We have two main programs. One is called Lunch Buddies, and it is in school mentoring where we recruit. We’re a faith-based organization, and we inherited a program called Lunch Buddies. It would’ve been around 2011. The organization that was running that program closed their doors, and they had been running it at Meadows. Deb Hess was the school counselor, and she connected with us and said, “Hey, here’s this program. Would you guys keep this going?” And when we began it, we inherited three volunteers and that first year grew it to 20. The next year it was 40. Eventually we peaked pre-pandemic at 151 mentors going into 21 different schools in Shawnee County. I like to say Lunch Buddies is the best thing since sliced bread. We love it.

Clint Patty:

I did Lunch Buddies for I think three or four years, but for our audience, describe what a lunch buddy does.

Chris Stewart:

Thirty minutes once a week, a mentor meets with the same child, commits to meeting with them for one school year, and they have the opportunity at the end of the year to re-up for the same kid the next year. Show up, sign in at the office, put on your name tag, walk to the kid’s classroom, and then they often will run to the door, give a high five, give a hug. They go get a lunch, they play a game of Connect Four or Sorry, Trouble, any of those fun board games, sit and chat, do icebreaker questions.

One of my favorites is, if you had a superpower, if you could have any superpower, what would your superpower be? So we equip our mentors with a list of questions like that, and they just look them in the eye, love them. The job description is four parts. Show up, listen, love them, and then go home and pray for them.

Clint Patty:

One of the fun things is you go into lunch with them and you are like a celebrity when you show up for these kids, and then the other kids get to know you too. And so what I always ended up, we’d have lunch and then it was, “Okay, well we’re going to go to the playground. Can you stick around?” It was fun. First of all, it was also physically exhausting, and you discover how out of shape you are when you’re on this playground with these kids and they’re running around and they’ve got endless boundless energy. But from personal experience, it is a very fulfilling opportunity for mentorship. And the kids are great, and they love it.

Chris Stewart:

They really do. Again, we’re all wired for connection. We just want people to pay attention to us, to listen to us and vice versa, to be able to connect in the other direction as well. And so it’s great. Over and over again, I hear volunteers tell me, “I don’t know if I’m doing any good for the kid, but man, this is so good for me.”

Clint Patty:

It ends up being rewarding for them too. For sure.

Chris Stewart:

It really does.

Clint Patty:

So talk about other programs that you’ve got going on at The Bridge.

Chris Stewart:

Lunch Buddies is our longest lasting program, and we’ve had a number of different models of mentoring ways where we go into the schools and connect with kids and encourage staff. And one of them was a middle school mentoring program that we did for about five years until the pandemic hit, and it highlighted for me just a frustration. Some kids, the kids who need mentors the most, are the hardest for volunteer mentors to connect with. The kids who need mentors the most have experienced trauma, and by the time they get to middle school, I never want to say it’s too late. It’s never too late for any human being to find connection and heal. But it’s really difficult for middle school kids to connect with new mentors, especially some of them.

And so I began questioning that and wondering about it. And just before the pandemic hit, I had an acquaintance introduce me to a mentoring program. And the way I like to describe it is this mentoring model starts earlier, goes deeper and stays longer. And we call our version of this Life Buddies; starts earlier, goes deeper, stays longer. We begin in kindergarten. We work with the schools to identify the kids who most need intervention in their life. They’re experiencing foster care, the death of a parent, some traumas. Have you heard of the ACEs profile, Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Clint Patty:

Very familiar with ACEs. Yeah. I spent some time on the Kansas Children’s Service League board, and that is a huge topic of conversation with kids that they assist. So, yeah, very familiar with that.

Chris Stewart:

That’s one of the tools that we use. Once the school refers a family, a child to us, we’ll use the ACEs profile and score the kids that most need connection with a healthy, safe adult. And so it starts earlier, goes deeper. We hire paid professional mentors, mentors who have the bandwidth, the training and the time to be able to connect with kids who are hard to connect with.

Clint Patty:

And you’re paying that cost at The Bridge?

Chris Stewart:

We are.

Clint Patty:

Wow, okay.

Chris Stewart:

Paid professional mentors go deeper. They spend three to four hours a week every week with that child. So start earlier, go deeper, and then stays longer. We commit as an organization that we’re going to provide a mentor for that child until they graduate high school. So from kindergarten through high school graduation, no matter what, as long as they stay in Shawnee County, we’re going to send a mentor their way every single week.

Clint Patty:

Wow. And that’s been going on since the pandemic?

Chris Stewart:

We began the research and started that during the pandemic, and so some of our kids are about two and a half years into that.

Clint Patty:

And good results?

Chris Stewart:

We are confident that when these kids graduate, one, that they’re going to graduate high school, they will postpone having children until they get out of their 20s, that they’re going to avoid involvement with the juvenile justice system. And so those three things are some of the strongest indicators of escaping poverty.

Clint Patty:

What are some of the biggest challenges that The Bridge faces as you’re putting these programs, these mentoring programs forward for kids?

Chris Stewart:

I would say the number one is something that’s called secondary trauma. When we’re working with families who live on the margins, who experience foster care, it is a traumatic experience for the families, and a good mentor is going to empathize with them. They’re going to feel some of the depths of what that family is feeling, and then they take that home with them. And if we don’t process that well, then our staff, I’m sure you’ve heard some of the statistics of what happens with case workers in foster care, they just don’t last long. It’s just really challenging.

Clint Patty:

Where do you draw? I’m curious for professional mentors where you draw from in the community to find them.

Chris Stewart:

That’s a great question. And give me another five or 10 years and I’ll tell you.

Clint Patty:

You’ll have the answer down pat.

Chris Stewart:

We are struggling with exactly that. We just went through a round of hiring and just had slim pickings. It’s tough.

Clint Patty:

Yeah, I would have to imagine that’s got to be the biggest challenge right now going forward. The program sounds amazing. I remember you telling me years ago that it is tough to run a program like The Bridge because you run knowing that there will be a degree of failure, there’ll be some kids that don’t get it. There’ll be some kids that don’t reach the finish line, but you’ll still be there holding their hand the entire time. I don’t know if you remember telling me that, but I was always very touched by that because I thought you start out with kids in really tough situations, and you want to help them all, and you want them all to reach the fullest potential life they can, but you know going in that some won’t.

Chris Stewart:

As a fan, it’s sometimes heartbreaking. I lived through the lean years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Lately it’s been really easy to be a fan.

Clint Patty:

It doesn’t seem possible, does it? That where we’re at as an organization with the Chiefs, I never dreamed this much success.

Chris Stewart:

And think of all the kids who think this is normal.

Clint Patty:

Ohm they do. Yeah, it’s terrible. My kids just expect it. And I’m like, really? You have no idea.

Chris Stewart:

When Marcus Mariota caught a pass off of one of our players’ helmets back in the playoffs years ago and broke my heart, I didn’t stop being a fan. I continued to be a fan.

Clint Patty:

You just have to. And when you believe in what you’re doing, I think it makes a tremendous difference. So talk if you can, and I realize sometimes we have some privacy concerns and you may not be able to share names, but do you have a couple of success stories with some of these kids that you could share with us?

Chris Stewart:

Yeah, so I’ll call him Jaylen. Jaylen was at the top of our list with our first cohort of boys that we enrolled in the program, and I started reaching out to his family to enroll him in the program and just got radio silence, got nothing back from them. And so started digging around a little bit, realized that just as we were reaching out, he was taken into foster care and was in Kansas City. And so got his caseworker’s phone number, and I’m a bit of a pest sometimes, and so I literally had it on my calendar to call her once a week and say, “Any chance he’s moving back with mom? We’d love to have him in our program.” And so I literally called her once a week for I think three months, and he moved back home with mom, reintegrated with her, and our mentor showed up at his classroom door, and his first thing he said to his new mentor was, “Leave,” and pointed at the door.

And so it took a while to warm up. Eventually they just became best of friends. But then he disappeared into foster care again, and one day he was at home and the next day he’s gone. His mentor drove to Manhattan and met with him, and the little boy at first wouldn’t even look him in the eye, but eventually warmed up a little bit. And they got to talking and he says, “Oh, shoot, I left my clothes in the washer.” He says, “Oh, yeah, why were your clothes in the washer?” He says, “Well, I was too scared to get out of bed last night to use the bathroom.” And so just thinking about a little 8-year-old boy and what that kind of fear does to his brain, does to his central nervous system, and he just lived in that fear all the time. And Jaylen’s gone through a number of different foster homes.

His mentor has followed him to each one. And at the beginning of this school year, he was going to be going to a new school, and so his mentor the week before school said, “Hey, we’re going on a field trip. We’re going to do a little search today.” And so they went to his new school and walked the hallways, and Jaylen barely looked up. He mostly just looked at the heels of his mentor as his mentor walked in front of him, tried to get him to come along, and he just walked behind him, but he introduced him to the building, introduced him to the special ed teacher, and this was just their normal two to three hour outing on a Tuesday afternoon. And his mentor went to his IEP today, and they were talking about how much progress he has made in this school year. And so it’s just having a caring adult who has the bandwidth to just keep showing up with a smiling face and a professional presentation for going into places like schools and just advocating gently, lovingly for Jaylen. It’s making a huge difference.

Clint Patty:

And so now Jaylen’s got one of those fans, one of the five that he needs is being there for him. So that’s huge.

Chris Stewart:

That’s right.

Clint Patty:

It’s a great story. And I know you’ve probably got a hundred more just like them behind it. Tell me about your collaborations within Topeka with other organizations. Obviously the schools, you’ve grown tremendously beyond Meadows, but talk about those partnerships that you have with other organizations here and how that cooperation works with The Bridge.

Chris Stewart:

I think if I can just use that to jump off and say that our schools are doing great, great work. We have some heroes in the schools who are climbing uphill, and so we do everything that we can to collaborate with classroom teachers, just be a smiling face. We’ve got a work fund for each of our mentors to be able to buy a cup of coffee, get some Starbucks, give a Starbucks gift card to those teachers. And so lots of collaboration there in our schools. Clint, I think that’s the front lines these days is our public schools.

Clint Patty:

Well, the kids are going to be there eight, nine, maybe 10 hours or more sometimes a day. And so while you have them there, the most impact you’re going to be able to make in their lives is right there. So no question. That’s where the front lines are.

Chris Stewart:

And if I can just add this, a little promo for Lunch Buddies. Lunch Buddies is not just a benefit to the mentor and the mentee, but we teach our mentors, when you go in there, get all kinds of joy, let the light of the sun shine on your face and then reflect that when you walk down the halls because that can be a dark place. It’s a frustrating day for a teacher. And so we walk in and we remind them, “Hey, there’s a world out there and we’re supporting you. You guys are our heroes.” And so we just love our collaboration with Topeka Public Schools. And then beyond that, it’s very individualized. We will collaborate with anybody if it will help our kids and their families.

One of our mentors was talking with a foster mom, the foster mom of one of our kids, and it’s a kinship placement, and she’s never done foster care before and now she’s got to figure out her taxes. And so she said, “What am I supposed to do with this, and what do I need?” The mentor called some other foster parents and they said, “Give me the short list. How does this work? And who can she talk to?” We will take whatever needs our families have, and we’ll do the work of advocates and social workers.

Clint Patty:

Do you have any idea how many numbers of children have been impacted since you started The Bridge throughout Shawnee County? It has to be in the thousands between Lunch Buddies. It’s a huge number.

Chris Stewart:

Barry Feaker asked me that on a podcast once, and I guesstimated a number, and I am reluctant. I decided I would not give a number again. So Clint, I’m not giving you a number.

Clint Patty:

Well, if Barry can’t get one, I don’t know why, good Lord.

Chris Stewart:

He got one. But afterwards I was like, “Man.” Because we’re just loving kids and connecting people, and I think the benefits, I believe, one day I’m going to get to heaven and walk down a street of gold and meet the different people that we’ve influenced, but the heroes of this story are not our mentors. We talk about that all the time. Every story has a hero. Most stories, the hero has a guide, and the guide’s not the main person. Katniss Everdeen had Haymitch. Luke Skywalker has Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Clint Patty:

That’s right.

Chris Stewart:

They’re not the main character. So our job is to support the main character, the hero in the story. And so we’re not going to take credit for how many kids we’ve influenced.

Clint Patty:

Even when I asked that question, I thought, he’s not going to tell me. I know how you are, and you take these kids one at a time, but I’m just doing the math in my head. If you’ve had over 151 volunteers for Lunch Buddies and you have Life Buddies now, and you extend that over a multi-decade period, that is a huge impact on the community. And, again, this idea of giving five positive role models that can be fans of these kids to at least maybe be able to cover 20% of that, that’s a big deal, a really big deal. What are your future goals? What’s your ambition for the next phase of The Bridge?

Chris Stewart:

So this New Life Buddies program, the evidence suggests there’s an organization that’s been using a similar model in the Northwest, and they’ve been doing it for 25 years, and they’ve got evidence that it really does move the needle, and we’re adapting it and adding Lunch Buddies to the mix. And so our long-term plan is to scale this to figure it out, and I call it Bridge in a box and figure out how we can share. There are, I guess, if you want to put a number to it, I think there’s 696 or so children in foster care in Shawnee County. I can imagine a world where every single one of those kids, every child that comes into foster care, gets a paid professional mentor, somebody who has the bandwidth, the energy, the training to pursue them no matter what, and walk with them for years just to help them become the kind of people that God created them to be.

Clint Patty:

I want also our audience to get a sense even more of who you are. You don’t just work at The Bridge, you live in central Topeka, and particularly you live right there where you’re working. And I talk about the importance of that to your mission about being with those whom you serve. I’ve heard you talk about that before, and I think it’d be great for our audience to hear that.

Chris Stewart:

Yeah, we live in the city. We feel the things that our families feel, experience the things that they experience. Just had a woman who wasn’t entirely connected with reality, I think, in our parking lot, digging through our trash can the other day. And I was thinking, “Okay, this is why my friend, the cop, wants me to shred all of my junk mail because people go through my trash,” and it created anxiety in me. I’m like, “What do I do? Do I go out and confront her and tell her to get out of my trash?” And so there are realities of urban life that create stress in the lives of our people. And so I can talk about those stresses with credibility with our families and just walk with them through life.

Clint Patty:

I’m going to wrap things up a little bit here with a question about the name, The Bridge, where that came from and what that means, and connect that to what is our turn as Topekans and how to get involved and who to contact. So your chance to tell us really what the meaning of that term The Bridge is, and then talk to us about if folks that want to get in touch with you, that want to be involved, that would like to help with funding or Lunch Buddies or Life Buddies, how they would go about getting hold of you. This will be your chance for your plug here at the end. So tell us about The Bridge first, what that name means.

Chris Stewart:

So when I was in Memphis doing urban ministry, one of my first assignments was to connect with the volunteers who drove in from the suburbs to do Wednesday night classes at our church, a group of young married couples, a young married class at a suburban church. And so the director said, go to Wendy’s. They always go to Wendy’s after church, go and just connect with those people and serve them. And so got to know them and created relations. I thought it was really neat. I thought there was a bridge between the suburbs and this urban church, and I thought that the traffic was all one way. They were coming in, they were sending their money in. But then about six months into our time in that assignment, I was out in the suburbs, I don’t know if it was a wedding shower, a baby shower, and one of the women was telling her story, and she started to weep.

And she talked about how this service, this Wednesday night opportunity, was transforming her as a person. It was changing her for the better she thought. And it clicked for me, it is a bridge, but it’s not one way traffic. People are being blessed by being connected. The haves with the have nots, however you want to say it, they were being blessed. And so that metaphor of The Bridge, I am in the business of connecting people; white, black, blue, green, doesn’t matter your color, rich, poor, somewhere in between. Just connecting people were made for it. And so that’s what The Bridge does is we connect people. And if people want to find out more, bridgeoftopeka.org is our website, and there’s a place to sign up to join our mailing list, to hear the stories. We try to send out one email a month with stories about what’s going on. And Lunch Buddies, there’s a button to click if you want to explore the possibility of mentoring a kid. Best thing since sliced bread.

Clint Patty:

That’s right.

Chris Stewart:

And for Life Buddies, we’re looking for long-term partners. We have committed to so far 15 families that we’re going to be with those kids and those families for 12 and a half years until they graduate high school, no matter what. And we’re looking for people that want to partner with us in that journey.

Clint Patty:

All right, so for Topekans, this is our chance to get involved. Visit bridgeoftopeka.org for more information. Chris Stewart, thank you. Any final thoughts?

Chris Stewart:

God is good. The sun is shining outside, and I’m ready to go to the park with a kid.

Clint Patty:

Amen. And go Chiefs. Right?

Chris Stewart:

Go Chiefs.

Clint Patty:

Chris, thank you. We appreciate you and your mission and encourage everyone that’s out here that’s interested, please get involved. It’s a wonderful organization doing great work for kids in this community, and there’s no higher purpose. Thank you, Chris.

Chris Stewart:

Thanks, Clint.

Clint Patty:

You’ve been listening to another episode of Investing in Good. Today’s episode was brought to you by Clayton Wealth Partners. If you’re an individual seeking to increase your impact through thoughtful charitable giving or if you represent an endowment, a foundation, or a nonprofit that’s looking to safeguard and grow your financial assets, please consider partnering with Clayton Wealth Partners. You can visit us at claytonwealthpartners.com and discover how we can help guide and empower you in your mission to make a difference. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this year 2024 marks 40 years that Clayton Wealth Partners has been in business. We would love to extend a very special thank you to our clients nationwide, in particular, a thank you to all of Northeast Kansas. We often say that we are here for you for the last 40 years. We are very thankful that you all have been here for us. On behalf of Clayton Wealth Partners, I’m Clint Patty. I thank you for listening. We will see you soon.

 

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Clint Patty, J.D.

As Managing Partner, Clint serves on the management team providing leadership, supporting business development efforts and providing client consultation.