The Bridge Downeast

Paul Hill, a board member with The Bridge Downeast youth center on Harkers Island, helps, from left, middle school students Landon Merkley and John Brooks with a computer project during a recent math and science camp held at the facility. (Cheryl Burke photo)

HARKERS ISLAND — It’s been one year since a group of Down East residents with a vision to have a youth center in their community opened the doors of The Bridge Downeast.

The group, made up of members of various Down East churches, started with little more than a dream and a vacant two-story structure at 1344 Island Road that had formerly housed East’ard Variety Store on the island.

But thanks to an outpouring of support from churches, civic groups and businesses, one year later the building is filled with two basketball courts, a variety of amusement and computer games, pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball tables, a snack bar and now 10 new computers, thanks to an education grant.

“We’ve been very blessed,” said island resident Marilyn Springle, who serves on the group’s board of directors. “It’s amazing to see where we started from and where it is now. It’s amazing to see what the Lord has done to help us do this. We couldn’t have done this without the generosity of the community.”

As a way to thank the community for its support, The Bridge will hold a community celebration and pig pickin’ beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The group got an unexpected gift recently when Shodor, a computer education group based in Durham, contacted them. Shodor had received a grant last year from Burroughs Wellcome to purchase computers and present math and science camps for youth in Carteret and Pamlico counties.

Shodor contacted Bridge Downeast board members in the spring to ask if they could hold math and science camps in their facility in June. In exchange for allowing them to use the building, the group agreed to donate 10 computers to the center.

The camps were held June 18-22 for high school students and June 25-29 for middle school students. Shodor also provided personnel to set up computers and present the camps.

Shodor has agreed to continue working with The Bridge Downeast to coordinate future camps as well.

Thanks to support from volunteer chaperones, the center is regularly open from 6 p.m. to midnight each Friday and Saturday.

Mrs. Springle said the center averages about 90 to 100 youth ranging from elementary to post high school age on Fridays, and about 50 to 60 on Saturday nights.

Although the original vision was just to be open for high school students, that vision has now expanded to elementary and middle school students and their parents.

“We had so many parents and 11- and 12-year-olds asking to come that we decided to make Friday night a Family Night. We have more teens coming now than we did before we did that,” she said.

The computer gift is helping the group’s board of directors achieve an original vision of doing educational outreach activities after school and during the summer is part of the original vision, according to Ms. Springle.

“Having the computers will allow us to offer other things after school, but we’ll need an increase in volunteers to help and monitor activities,” said Mrs. Springle.

She added that they’ve been looking into partnering with the Boys and Girls Club to offer programs during the week, although no agreement has been reached.

Rising Harkers Island School seventh-grader John Brooks was among those attending the recent middle school science camp. He also comes to The Bridge periodically on the weekends.

“It’s a great place to come and gather with your friends,” he said. “I think having the computers will be a great improvement, too.”

Rising Beaufort Elementary fifth-grader Landon Merkley agreed.

“I like it. It’s nice to come here because there’s not much else to do for kids. This is a really good place for kids to come and hang out,” he said.

The Bridge currently has about 40 volunteers from various churches that take turns chaperoning on the weekends. But more volunteers are needed, as are donations of equipment and money.

“We’re down an air conditioning unit that needs to be replaced, and our biggest obstacle is we need to buy the building,” she said.

They currently rent the building at a relatively low monthly rate. But they can purchase the large facility for about $380,000.

Mrs. Springle said they are checking into grants to help, and need someone who is good at writing grants to assist.

As for the Saturday celebration, the normal $5 admission fee will be waived that evening, although donations will be accepted for the barbecue plates, which will also include slaw and baked beans. The snack bar will be open for extras at a minimal cost. A DJ will provide music.

For more information or to volunteer, go to The Bridge Downeast on Facebook, or email Ellen Gillikin, People are also encouraged to stop by The Bridge on Friday or Saturday.

Those interested in donating can make checks out to The Bridge Downeast and mail them to The Bridge Downeast, P.O. Box 272, Smyrna, N.C. 28579.

(1) comment

Patti Frank

What a heart-warming story about what the good people of Harkers Island have created for their children in The Bridge project. Sounds like a real community treasure--and the number of young people frequenting the Center attests to its success.

So happy to read "good news" stories about our communities. And a reminder of what we citizens can achieve when we unite for the common good.

Remember that thought-provoking quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead? She said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Seems that can-do spirit is alive and well Down East in Harkers Island. Wonderful!

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