The Bridge Empowerment Program: Our Story and History

teenagers laughing in a group

Empowered Since '79

In 1979, Sister Helen Owens, OSF, and Monsignor Michael Mannion had a shared vision of creating a safe space where young people in Camden and the surrounding areas could gather, learn, and grow by accepting each other, sharing and listening to each other’s stories, and learning about the impact of their actions. They wanted to create a supportive, nurturing environment that would empower young people to thrive.

After finding the initial group of young people and launching the program as “The Bridge”, one of those original members/creators, Renée Pinardo, was asked by Sr. Helen and Fr. Mike to take on the leadership of the program. Under Renée’s direction, and with her passionate dedication to supporting young people, The Bridge blossomed into fruition, uplifting Camden’s youth and young adults as they began to succeed within their families, community, and local schools. It’s been over 40 years since those early days of The Bridge, and Renée has been there for every one, still with the same driving passion to see all young people have the opportunity to succeed and make a positive impact in their community.

Today, Maria, (Renée’s daughter) continues the leadership that she grew up with at the Bridge. Together, they have been fortunate to witness generations of young people come through the doors – learn new skills, interact with diverse groups, and make genuine connections. At The Bridge, we envision a world where every interaction “Bridges” people to resources, community, and ultimately, becoming their very best authentic self.

The Bridge Team and Testimonials

Meet Our Team

Maria Pinardo, Program Coordinator -  As coordinator of The Bridge, Maria designs and facilitates engaging and interactive sessions; offers training, support, and encouragement to The Bridge’s Youth, Young Adult, and Adult Leaders; as well as manages day-to-day operations. She has been with The Bridge for over 25 years, has a background in Wholistic Wellness, and is a certified massage therapist. Specializing in community and team building, she designs in-person and online workshops that encourage individuals and groups to make authentic connections while cultivating the strengths of their diversities. Maria is passionate about helping others live healthier, more fulfilled lives. Her wholistic, attentive, and insightful approach are key to successfully supporting people in identifying and using their natural gifts while embracing all aspects of their journey. Maria is an accomplished international facilitator, powerful speaker, and co-author of the best-selling book Flashpoint: Your Turnaround Story Starts Here.

Renee Pinardo, Community Health Worker - Renee was one of the founding young people of The Bridge in 1979. She was instrumental in designing the program’s curriculum and structure and has remained infinitely passionate and active throughout the past 40+ years. Her commitment and dedication to the families she serves and to the community at large is immeasurable. She is a New Jersey certified social worker and domestic violence counselor. In addition to numerous awards and acknowledgments throughout the decades, in 2020, Renee was the proud recipient of Virtua Health’s prestigious President’s Here for Good Award for her long-standing dedication and service to the community.


We believe The Bridge is often best described by our participants and their achievements. Here are some recent examples:

I am grateful for The Bridge because this organization has developed my character. I’ve been a part of this organization for three years, and because of The Bridge, I have gotten a job, I am a part of the honor society, and I am more emotionally mature. As a 21-year-old autistic man, I can say that I have gained more self-love and appreciation for myself. Thank you so much for supporting us.” – Elvis R., Pennsauken

“The Bridge has impacted my life in a significant way by guiding me along my personal journey in life, ultimately allowing me to change who I am to who I want to be. I used to be so passive and quiet that I allowed opportunities to pass and instead fostered toxic environments and situations. These occurrences reaffirmed my preconceptions of myself that I was not capable nor deserving of living the life I wanted.” – Cat P., Gloucester City

“I always credit The Bridge as the key to my survival and life. As a teen living in Camden, there were not many resources for positive things to do. The Bridge has been a consistent resource/Family to help build me into the positive man I am today! The Bridge has motivated me to be true to who I am and who I wanted to be - A Leader. I am forever and eternally grateful for all the love, support, and life skills/leadership that The Bridge has instilled in me.” – Peter B., Brooklawn

“The Bridge has impacted my life in so many different ways. When I was young, I was very shy, and at times I doubted myself as a good role model, big sister, and good daughter. Today, I continue to practice and pay it forward with all of the skills I’ve learned. I would not be where I am today without the love and support from The Bridge!” – Tia B., Brooklawn

"I started at The Bridge at the age of 13. I was very shy and had zero communication skills. Coming to The Bridge saved my life in every way possible. When I was at The Bridge, I always felt like I belonged, like I had a family. I always felt welcomed. Here I am 30 years later, and I'm still a part of The Bridge. I'm still part of the family." – Madeline S., West Deptford

"The Bridge has impacted our whole family positively. Attending the weekly groups and activities allowed us to understand ourselves and see our role in the world. We learned how to understand what goes on around us and how to deal with our thoughts and emotions. We each learned how to deal with people and grow from our adversities. As a family, The Bridge has taught us proper and effective communication skills, resiliency, and tolerance of others. As a family, we learned how to better understand and support each other when we go through changes in our lives." – Juan & Mary C., Camden

"When I started attending The Bridge, I never expected to become a leader because I didn't know how the program was run. After attending my first meeting as a leader, I realized that The Bridge isn't just a meeting on zoom, it's something people look forward to and truly learn from. Since becoming a leader, I have been more confident in my public speaking skills, more comfortable initiating conversation, and so much more." – Vera C., Stratford


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