Jim Agnello, Class of 2004: Bridges Creates Community & Teaches Empathy

Jim Agnello, Reunion Class of 2004, became involved with Bridges by accident. Since his first trip, he has been a firm believer in Bridges’ work. As a guidance counselor at Bronxville High School, he was asked to take over and chaperone a Bridges trip just two weeks prior because the teacher organizing the trip was suddenly unable to go. He says, “I thought to myself, what teacher would ever take the risk to do that, they must be out of their minds.” However, Jim said yes and became the official chaperone for the trip. He says, “At the time, I knew zero about Nicaragua, I just got on a plane with a bunch of students and went along for the ride. I had no expectations that this would change me. I thought I would go once and then resume my annual tradition of traveling to Florida for spring break. I fell in love with the organization, the people, and the trip [experience]. Now, I have completed my 19th trip and have traveled to two countries with Bridges –  I have zero regrets.”

Jim has traveled to multiple Bridges sites within Nicaragua and the DR. He says, “I was able to build close relationships with the people, the staff members, the community members, the masons. When I started, the young teenage masons were not even paid. They were just volunteers looking to learn and hoping to get a job. Now they are like my own brothers to me. I have a tradition that I go for a run every year to each house we have built in the community. Kids recognize me and come down yelling and screaming. It’s a very special relationship. I still talk to the very first family we built for in Guanacastillo. It brings tears to my eyes to remember how emotional it is when we visit them each year.”

Jim truly believes in the power of Bridges’ work to change lives. He says, “I can’t think of a better way to make the world a better place. Unlike so many organizations that do hit and run kind of projects without thinking about sustainability, I love that Bridges brings people closer together with their focus on community relations, sustainability, and cohesion. It’s that holistic approach that impresses me the most, and I absolutely notice the difference that Bridges has made in the communities over the years. For example, when I first traveled to the community of El Portillo, Nindirí, there were little clusters of individual families supporting each other. Now, those individual families have become a cohesive, real community with Bridges’ support. I have also seen the spreading of pride as families received homes and took pride in being homeowners, new classrooms were built, and micro-loans helped community members to have some economic successes. It is amazing to watch.”

Jim has also seen how Bridges changes the lives of his students. He says, “This trip teaches my students empathy…that we are all part of a bigger puzzle, and that we can make a positive impact. It’s like my favorite quote by Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, for indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.’

I would say [the majority of] my students are impacted by the trip in very meaningful ways and called to action. They become very active in the club at school when they come back and do things to keep the message alive. Several students go on to organize their [own] trips at their respective colleges and change their majors and career paths. I had a student who came on the trip in high school, then started his own trip in college, later became the president of Engineers Without Borders, and now works on engineering projects in developing countries.

Another former student had never done anything like this, but then changed her major to nursing because of Bridges and joined the Navy. The Navy has a program similar to the Peace Corps where they work in developing countries; she has now done a lot of work in developing countries. She will tell you that it is 100% because of her experience with Bridges.”

Jim is looking forward to attending the 2019 Leadership Dinner Reunion Celebration to share with others who believe in the mission and vision of Bridges and have been impacted by their service learning trips with Bridges.