Khalil Bridges has no couch in his living room, but he does have a chair. A leather one with arm rests that embrace him as he plops down one recent afternoon and takes in his sparse surroundings.
“This is all I ever wanted growing up,” he says. “I just wanted to live on my own.”
This is not just an apartment. This is his apartment, the first place that the 18-year-old has lived in a year where he doesn’t have to sleep in borrowed space, trying to make his tall, lanky frame compact and unburdensome. Here, he has his own chair, and his own dining room table and his own bed topped with a pillow that reads “Relax.”
“This is relaxing,” Bridges says. “When I get home, I just feel relieved.”
A year ago, Bridges was about to enter his senior year at one of Baltimore’s most troubled high schools when he found himself living in his family’s home alone, with no electricity or gas. His mother, who has a chronic illness, had been taken to a hospital and then a nursing home, and Bridges couldn’t pay the bills by himself. He went to live with his sisters, then a close family friend.
Now, the teenager — featured in a Washington Post article earlier this year — is in a much different position. He started classes at a community college a few weeks ago and can walk to the suburban campus from his one-bedroom apartment. And all because of the generosity of strangers who never met him but hoped he could succeed despite the towering odds against him. After the article ran, people donated more than $40,000 to a GoFundMe page for Bridges — money he says he is determined not to waste.
“They made the best investment of a lifetime,” Bridges says. “I have faith that no matter what I go through, no matter what happens, I’m going to graduate from college.”
“I think I have a really bright future,” he says.
Working with Hallie Atwater, a social worker who has an office at Renaissance Academy High School, where Bridges graduated in June, the teenager has carefully budgeted the donated funds. He has calculated that there is enough to pay for two years of rent with utilities (about $1,100 a month) and two years of classes (which cost about $1,360 a semester, not including books) at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, where he aims to obtain an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year college. For all other expenses, Bridges uses his pay from a job at McDonald’s, where he works the grill on the days he doesn’t have school.
“I still have to pay for toilet paper, food, everything to take care of myself, really,” Bridges says. The donations have just meant that he doesn’t have to struggle as much, he says. “They helped me to get stable.”
Stability wasn’t always promised to Bridges. After his mom was hospitalized, he sold drugs briefly to earn money he wasn’t getting from anywhere else. For a long time, he says, he was angry and unsure of his future. Renaissance Academy sits in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, less than a mile from where the riots broke out following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
During Bridges’s senior year, three classmates were also killed, one stabbed in the heart inside a classroom at the school.
Earlier this month, the federal government awarded the school a $350,000 grant to assist with the ongoing recovery efforts following the stabbing. The Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) grant will go toward training and development programs for the staff, hiring a person to make home visits to chronically absent students and expanding the school’s mentoring program, which consisted last year of four African American men who agreed to be on call at all times for their mentees. (Bridges credits his mentor, Antwon Cooper, with changing his outlook and helping him to graduate.)
“I’m grateful,” Renaissance Academy Principal Nikkia Rowe says of the grant. The staff has been working hard to make sure that students feel safe again, and she says the money will help them expand upon that effort, taking the school beyond where it was last year. “Resiliency is defined by a person’s ability to bounce back after a traumatic episode. But what are they bouncing back to? . . . It has to be better than where we were before.”
The school, which has about 300 students, will also benefit from a nearly $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that help place full-time mental health technicians in 13 West Baltimore schools “where recent violence and unrest have had a profound effect.”
After Ananias Jolley was stabbed inside a biology class in December and died a month later, the school turned the 17-year-old’s loss into a motivating mantra, handing out shirts that read “Graduate for Jolley!”
Bridges says he still sees frequent tributes to Jolley and the two other teenagers who died — Darius Bardney, 16, and Daniel Jackson, 17 — pop up on social media.
“With those three students gone, there’s an empty space in the heart of Renaissance that will never be replaced,” Bridges says. Asked whether any more of his classmates were lost to violence over the summer, he starts to think, then decides not to.
“I try to keep my mind off death, because when it was on death, I was in a depressing mood,” he says. “I try to keep motivated and give thanks that I’m still here and that I don’t gotta watch my back every five seconds.”
Now, he puts his effort into the three classes that he is taking this semester. For his literature class, he recently read an essay titled “Living in Two Worlds” that he says in many ways describes his life. He points to one line in particular that he has highlighted in neon yellow: “The fact that they survive in the world in which they live is something to be very proud of, indeed, it inspires within me a sense of tenacity and accomplishment that I hope every college graduate will someday possess.”
“I feel love lately,” Bridges says. “Before I didn’t feel I was loved. Now I feel there are actually people who care about society and know our generation is going to grow into something.”
Bridges says his long-term goal is to open his own gym, where he can offer athletic training and for those customers with marketable talents, sports management.
But for now, he is content in a living room that has a TV still partially wrapped in plastic and plush carpet that his guests don’t mind sitting on. When he gets his next McDonald’s paycheck, he says, he’ll buy a couch.