Elyssa Michaels went on her first Bridges trip in 2003 when she was just 13 years old. It was such an impactful experience that she has returned on 12 Bridges trips since then and even started a Bridges trip at her high school, John Jay. As an adult, Elyssa is now a Bridges trip leader and shares the Bridges experience with the youth of her church.
Elyssa says, “I’m a very emotional and empathetic person. [When I went on my first Bridges trip] and saw people living in such poverty, it hit me hard. I come from a wealthy area and had never seen anything like it before. It surprised me how the people have such positive attitudes and, although they don’t have a lot materially, they are so welcoming and have such a strong sense of community.
My trips were incredibly life-changing. I always gravitate toward helping people, and toward human interaction and connection, and that has been a big part of my life at home, so of course it is the biggest part of the Bridges trip for me: the connection to the people. Learning about people in other countries and their perspective, you see how similar people really are and learn how to relate to people from different cultures. The experience of being around people so different from you is very translatable to life in the US where there is a huge immigrant population; it’s important to think about how we are treating people at home too. In my daily life, because of my Bridges experience, I try to pay more attention to other people and treat everyone like I want to be treated because we don’t know about their inner struggles.
It is a blessing for people who are born into opportunity to look beyond themselves and use their position to help those who are in need. Everyone has the right to have a dignified home and be able to take care of their family. I love Bridges’ model of building with families [not for them], as a mutual project that we work on together. Over my years with Bridges, I saw the impact Bridges has, the improvement of the living conditions and more community pride.”
Elyssa, now 31, is a teacher’s aide in an elementary school and a hairstylist. She also recently took over as the Director of Middle School and High School Youth Programs at Bedford Presbyterian Church. As part of her duties, she organizes and leads Bridges trips, exposing new young minds to the experience that so affected her while growing up. Elyssa says, “Paul Alcorn, my former minister [and Bridges trip leader] had such a huge impact on me growing up and shaping my view of the world through the Bridges trips. It’s an amazing opportunity for me to be able to expose the young people in my group to what has been the best experience of my life. They are at an age when they are inquisitive about the world, so it’s the best time to expose them to other cultures, ways of life, and perspectives. I hope the Bridges trips help to mold them into better, more compassionate people and expand their views on the world. Then, when they go into their communities back home or the workplace and make decisions, I hope these experiences remind them to make the kind of decisions that positively impact other people. I hope it changes them in how they live their lives and carry themselves.”