Keith Bridges says he knows the pressures students at Howard School of Academics and Technology face to join the wrong crowd. He should. He was once a Howard student himself.
The alumnus now mentors students at his alma mater through life lessons, presenting on the topic of ethical decision making inside the rooms where he once studied as a youth. He tells students in service learning class that making the right choices brought him to where he is today.
"You have to start somewhere," said Bridges, adding that adversity early in life did not stop him from succeeding. "I paid $5 for rent [in subsidized housing]. We went to the Salvation Army for clothes. But I studied in class and worked hard."
He said his teachers rewarded him with boxes of Little Debbie cakes for doing well in class. He took the snacks home to his family to share, so there would be food to eat in between meals.
Bridges now has a Bachelor of Science in business studies and management from Mountain State University. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in health and human performance from UT. He serves as the UT evaluation, staff development and 4-H youth development director, inspiring youth of all ages.
"With close to 40 percent of Hamilton County homes headed by a single mother, many of the children in these homes do not have interaction with their father," said Howard School service learning teacher Donna Taheri. "I feel it is time well-spent for Keith Bridges to be given the opportunity to interact and teach life skill lessons to our students. My students love when Keith Bridges comes to our class. He is an amazing individual and an outstanding male role model for our school and community. As students write their final essay at the end of each semester, they often mention Keith Bridges."
Bridges is quick to point out that Howard School of Academics and Technology has produced many successful students. He tells current students that no obstacle is too great to overcome and that they can all achieve their potential by simply trying their best.
"Reginald Reggie White was born in Chattanooga and attended Howard School of Academics and Technology," said Bridges. "He attended UT and became a professional football player nicknamed 'The Minister of Defense' because of his Christian faith. During his professional career he became famous not only for his outstanding play, but also for his Christian mentor efforts."
He also tells students that Howard School was named after Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who was a career U.S. Army officer and a Union general in the American Civil War. Howard was a leader in providing higher education for freed men.
In contrast, he also talks about many people who made the wrong decisions, like Samuel George Hurd III. Hurd played football for the Cowboys and the Bears, but ruined his life by making an unethical decision to go back to his former street life by distributing large quantities of drugs.
"I grew up in Hooterville," Bridges said. "Once you make it out of these places [bad neighborhoods], stay out."