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Image: Jeff Frey, Brainerd Oct. 2009 @ Lakeland Vet Hospital Blandin Fd Brainerd 0059

Brainerd: building Bridges for youth

The Brainerd Lakes Area, a region of central Minnesota comprised of unique communities that span generations, has rallied together to lay the groundwork for a better future for its young people.

Bridges Career Academics & Workplace Connection, a career education and mentoring  program aimed at helping students identify a worthwhile career path, has been embraced by local schools and businesses as a way to invest in the area’s future leaders.

Bridges, now an extended three-year pilot project with the task of serving as a “bridge” between business and education, was the brainchild of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber’s workforce committee and Central Lakes College.

“The Bridges program came about when we began to realize the need to look at our future workforce,” says Mary Gottsch, director of Bridges Workplace Connection. “So we began the journey to help educate people in our community, regionally and statewide, to prepare them for the world of work.”

Well before the project was underway, a solid base of relationship-building took place. Multiple presentations were given, visits with area legislators were conducted, meetings were held with chambers of commerce around the state, and forums were held with local businesses and community members.

Gottsch, who has been with the Chamber Workforce Committee for 20 years and the director for six, attests to Bridges’ humble beginnings.

“We developed a PowerPoint titled ‘Ready or Not Here They Come’ and travelled around Minnesota,” she says. “I think we gave around 75 presentations in total.”

This forethought was a compelling factor in the Blandin Foundation’s decision to support the Bridges program initiative with a $50,000 grant to the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Education Association.

“The Bridges program is strategically aligned with our priorities of educational attainment and economic opportunity in rural communities — making them an ideal grant recipient,” says Mary Kosak, program officer of the Blandin Foundation. “The Bridges plans for including internships, job-shadowing experiences, employers in the schools, teachers in the workplace, and career days focusing on high-demand occupations were also well-researched and supported by the people of the community. “

Gottsch’s predecessor on the Chamber Workforce Committee, Lisa Paxton, also was instrumental in the program’s development.

“Lisa has been a strong advocate for Bridges, and has spoken at many legislative and statewide meetings,” says Gottsch. “Without the leadership, financial support and guidance of Lisa, the Blandin Foundation, Brainerd Lakes Chamber Board of Directors and Central Lakes College, we wouldn’t be this far along.”


“We are seeing the success of the program beginning to take shape,” says Dena Robinson, human resources assistant at Brainerd Lakes Health, the region’s network of clinics and hospital. While still in its infancy, the Bridges program is reaching people, says Robinson. “The job-shadowing process helps clarify what specific jobs are really like, so students don’t embark on a four-year career path if it is not the right fit them.”

As the Bridges Career Academics & Workplace Connection offers students first-hand experience in regionally high-demand careers, the framework is being built for prosperous rural communities. Through grant efforts and a partnership of 23 high schools, as well as the Central Lakes College, the Bridges program is offering a unique experience beyond the classroom – one that is sure to benefit the leaders of tomorrow, and inspire them today.


Kelsey Olson and Madison Oldman of Brainerd High School with Dr. Molly Anderson of Lakeland Veterinary Hospital during a recent career exploration day coordinated by the Bridges program.


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