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Staff see beyond teens' scary 'front'

Bridget Cannon has spent 25 years at VOA's Crosswalk serving street teens.


By Mary Stamp

Bridget Cannon believes that every person she has met working with Crosswalk and Volunteers of America of the Inland Northwest has changed her in some way.

"I have met many young people so that means I have made many changes," she said in a recent interview marking her 25 years serving with Crosswalk.

Bridget, who is vice president of shelter services, started her career in restaurant, catering and deli businesses in New Jersey, moving every four years because she was looking for the next challenge.

Soon after moving to Spokane in 1994, she began working at a local restaurant and wanted to meet more than the people at work. She saw an ad that Crosswalk was seeking volunteers, so she signed up for Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

She began to volunteer in 1994, and soon moved into a job there.

"When I first walked into Crosswalk, I saw young people who had not showered in a long time, had wackadoodle hairdos and body piercings in places I would never think of piercing," Bridget described.

She learned their intimidating appearance was to protect them and express their distrust of people because they had experienced so much hurt and trauma.

With Crosswalk, she had opportunities to grow every few years, moving into new roles with new challenges. In 1998, she became shelter supervisor. Then she became program manager, head of independent living programs and foster youth supervisor.

With a grant for rural outreach, she began visiting rural communities in Eastern Washington and North Idaho to find resources to keep young people in hometowns or draw them to return, keeping them off the streets of Spokane.

In 2008, based on her background working with the kids in various aspects of the program, Bridget moved from the first-floor programs with kids to the administrative offices upstairs as director of youth programs and eventually as vice president of shelter services.

"I am as passionate about hanging out with the kids as I was as a volunteer," she said.

Back when Bridget first started volunteering, a tall blonde girl came into Crosswalk before Christmas.

"I could tell she was petrified. I was at the front desk and asked how we could help her," Bridget said.

The girl was from California. She had been kicked off the basketball team and her mother had sent her to Spokane to live with her father, but she did not tell the father their daughter was coming. When she showed up at his doorstep, he drove her to Crosswalk.

"The holiday season is supposed to be a loving family time, but she was dropped off at our shelter," Bridget said. "She did not leave the front desk because she was scared by the other teens' appearances.

"I learned that those appearances were a cover-up, a defense to keep people away so they wouldn't be hurt," she said. "That was a turning point for me to realize that these teens were like all teens. We needed to help tear down the boundaries they set up and keep them safe.

"That changed how I talked with them, to hear their stories and help them find opportunities," she said.

After mediating with the girl's mother, Crosswalk helped her get on a bus to go home.

"She changed my life. After that, I became protective of the teens who came here, especially when people blamed them and called them juvenile delinquents," Bridget said. "People would change their opinions if they spent a week with them. They just want to be loved."

Bridget experienced many turnaround stories. In fact, many who once came seeking shelter are now employees.

Recently, she had a phone call from one of the first people she worked with as a case manager in 1998. He had been at Crosswalk from the age of 13 until he was 18.

"He was 40 and helping take care of his mother. He and his wife chose to give a donation to Crosswalk," she said.

Often people call or return to tell how Crosswalk made a difference in their lives.

"I tell staff they may never see the difference they make in someone's life. It may take a while, but one day the lightbulb may go on," she said, telling of listening to one "alum" as an adult using the words she had said years ago.

"I realized he had listened to me. It's amazing how resilient the teens are," said Bridget, who carries that belief into her work overseeing Crosswalk, the Young Adult Shelter, two outreach teams, Alexandria's House, the Aston-Bleck Program and Hope House.

At Alexandria's House, she said, is a program for babies having babies. About 16 come through in a year to stay in the five rooms. "They do not know how to parent or live on their own," she said.

So the Aston-Bleck Program receives the young mothers in five transitional two-bedroom apartments, where they can continue with the same case manager. There they learn how to be parents. Ninety percent move to permanent housing and stay housed.

Crosswalk last year served 800 in the drop-in center with case management and in the school where they can earn a GED. In 2023, about 130 stayed in the night shelter's 18 beds.

The Young Adult Shelter housed 200 last year.

Crosswalk broke ground for Crosswalk 2.0 on May 28 to serve youth at a location across from Spokane Community College on East Mission, rather than downtown.

The new center is one block from the Young Adult Shelter.

"When we started talking about Crosswalk 2.0, we consulted with the kids. I invited them to join me for coffee. I asked if we build a new Crosswalk, what would they want," Bridget said.

"They all said they did not want to be downtown where they are among people dealing drugs," she said. "They wanted to be near parks and green space. They helped pick the spot, plan the architecture and programs, and design our logo."

On its second floor of the new building, there will be a Supportive Independent Living program for 16-to 20-year-olds who need foster care but cannot find foster homes. Foster parents do not want older teens, and teens do not want to risk another foster family.

"We will serve 18 young people in transitional housing that is like a college dorm, where they have their own bedrooms but share living and kitchen space," she said.

Those in the program, who are studying or employed, can live in a more stable situation than a night-by-night shelter. They can build adult skills in one to two years until they find an apartment and full employment.

For Bridget, the new building is her next challenge. She plans to assist through the construction, while funds are raised, and as the program is established.

"When I eventually retire, I'll likely continue to volunteer with Crosswalk," she said.

Bridget has been the face of Crosswalk with her visits to many area faith communities, especially before COVID.

"The faith communities provide food and donations. Their volunteers who listen and communicate the teens' inherent self-worth have made a difference," she said. "Without the faith communities, I'm unsure we would have lasted for the 40 years since Crosswalk's founding in 1985."

Faith community volunteers collect underwear at MardiBras events. Some have also built beds and helped women move into Hope House.

"Harriet the Shoe Lady" from the Unitarian Universalist Church for years provided hundreds of pairs of sneakers and other shoes," said Bridget, who is not part of an organized faith community but values how faith communities mobilize response.

"Our staff are passionate to provide compassionate care and understanding for the young people. They do not work for money. They know they have an impact," Bridget said.

Asked what her dream job would be, she said, "This is it."

For information, call 688-1120 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June 2024