The Bridges new leader

Daniel Pfarr takes over as head of nonprofit

EAST ISLES — Daniel Pfarr, the new executive director 
of The Bridge for Youth, may be among the few North Minneapolis residents who not only can drive a combine, but also does so with some regularity.

Pfarr frequently makes the 60-mile drive south on Highway 169 to Le Sueur, where his family has farmed land in the fertile Minnesota River valley region since the 1880s. Then he drives back to his home not far from 
Theodore Wirth Park, where he lives with his wife and three young boys.

“It’s a big part of my life,” Pfarr said of his work on the farm, duties he shares with a brother, Dave. It “rejuvenates” him, he said, for his day job, which, until recently, was as associate director of Bolder Options, a youth mentoring program operating in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester.

On Nov. 1, Pfarr became the fifth executive director of The Bridge for Youth, a nonprofit that for four decades has taken in homeless and runaway youth working, whenever possible, to reunite them with their families. His unique urban-rural perspective comes with him to the job.

Pfarr said his community “is a lot like our neighbors on the farm.”

“They pull together in crisis,” he said. “… We help each other raise our families together. You watch out for each other’s children. And so, for me, there’s a lot of similarities between urban folks and farm people.”

Those community bonds are not always strong enough to keep youth off the streets.

Cathy ten Broeke, director of the Office to End Homelessness for Minneapolis and Hennepin County, pointed to a recent Wilder Research study that found the numbers of Minnesota homeless aged 21 or younger rose 46 percent in three years, to 1,268 in 2009 from 867 in 2006.

“Most of these kids are dealing with abuse and neglect, and these programs (like The Bridge) are literally saving kids’ lives in a lot of cases,” ten Broeke said.

A refuge like The Bridge, which just marked its 40th anniversary, may be more important than ever. But it has struggled a bit in recent years: with the drop-off in foundation support during the recession, something almost all nonprofits are facing; with the budget cuts and staff reductions that followed; and with the fading glow of a successful $8 million capital campaign that led up to the opening of its new building in 2008.

A life of social work

Pfarr grew up in a family of eight siblings, with parents who regularly welcomed foster children into their home.

It’s easy to imagine that experience influenced Pfarr’s career choices. He graduated from St. Thomas University with a master’s in clinical social work, and his resume includes running a Catholic Charities homeless shelter for fathers and their children while he also lived in the shelter.

In 1995, Pfarr joined Bolder Options to get help for James, a teenager he was mentoring. He and his wife, Julie Pinomaki, continue to take on mentees, and James, now 32 years old, calls Pfarr “pops.”

His volunteer work with Bolder Options eventually earned him a staff position, first as development director and then, in 2003, as associate director.

“The youth at Bolder Options were all in crisis, at-risk, failing from school,” Pfarr said. “Family structures are a difficult piece of that, and here at The Bridge you have a lot of the same dynamics.”

Kate Eubank, development director for The Bridge, said Pfarr’s hands-on experience working with youth in crisis was “part of the reason why a lot of staff members were really excited about bringing Dan on.”

“That’s what The Bridge really needs, is someone who can be a counselor first and run the business side of the organization, as well,” Eubank said.

Construction of the new administrative offices and youth housing, including renovation of a former telephone switching station, was completed in 2007, but by the time The Bridge moved in the following year project costs had run to about $9 million, $1 million more than was raised in the capital campaign, Eubank said.

“We’ve got a 30-year forgivable loan, and we do carry some debt on the building” she said.

The Bridge in 2008 also lost a federal grant that supported its Transitional Living Program, which helps older youth who do not rejoin their families to transition into independent living. That contributed to a budget shortfall of about $400,000 in 2008.

Budget cuts at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 erased much of the shortfall, and a successful effort to boost foundation giving meant they ended 2009 “with essentially a balanced budget,” Eubank said.

“We are very lean now,” she said. “We’ve really trimmed everywhere we can. We are really efficient with our money, and we have had to reduce service capacity in some areas.” 

That means some beds in The Bridge’s new building must sit empty, because there are too few staff members to monitor them.

Michael Alexin, a Target Corp. executive who serves as vice chair of The Bridge Board of Directors, said they sought an executive director who had sound skills in leadership, fundraising and fiscal management, as well as a “solid understanding” of the organization’s work.

“We found all that in Dan,” Alexin said.

Asked about former Executive Director Tim Reardon, who joined The Bridge in 2007, Alexin said he “was able to help The Bridge through a period of transition,” and that the split was “amicable.”

Pfarr said the focus of his new work, for now, was to “strengthen our core services again,” including reopening the empty beds for youth seeking emergency shelter.

In his first few weeks on the job, Pfarr made sure to sit in on “group,” when youth in the shelter come together to share their stories, often through music, poetry or art.

“These kids are experiencing some very, very difficult personal, social, psychological, mental trauma,” he said.

They are difficult stories to hear, but they keep him connected to the core mission of The Bridge. Like his trips to the farm, his visits to “group” will become a regular part of his life, he said.

“I’m not surprised by the problems, but I’m reminded,” he added. “That’s something I’ll always have in my schedule.”