Coffee with Corey: Transforming Lives, Building Community

By Corey Poole

Ben D. Johnson Education Center Executive Director Bridget Gustafson and Program Administrator Darrin Nixon are transplants to Natchitoches who have both become very involved in the local community.

Bridget grew up in the midwest, but has lived on both the East and West coast at different times in her life. Looking for jobs through AmeriCorps, the South was a very foreign place to land, but the mission of the Ben Johnson really resonated with her.

She also serves as the Director of Student Fellowships, a remote position for an organization she founded in college called Re:Wild Your Campus. It empowers the next generation of environmental leaders to create safer, more sustainable living and learning environments for all, by starting locally and advocating for organic land care on their campuses. Bridget also serves on the board for The Swifty Foundation, funding research for pediatric cancer.

After finding an apartment (site unseen) and driving 16 hours, Bridget settled into Natchitoches and began walking to her job at the Ben Johnson from the Melrose Apartments. While it alarmed some people she spoke to that she was walking clear across town, Bridget said it’s created a lot of cool interactions with residents along her walking route. Some of her chance meetings have turned into friendships, like Anna Marie Santiago, who calls Bridget at 7:15 am to check on her if she hasn’t passed Anna’s house yet.

While the South wasn’t foreign territory for Darrin, he didn’t know anything about Natchitoches when he came here to attend Northwestern State University for a psychology degree. While he stayed on campus his first year in town, he became involved in organizations on the college level that quickly led to opportunities to become involved off campus as well.

He chartered and serves as the president of the NAACP and the National Pan-Hellenic Council at NSU. He is also the vice president of the Theta Chi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. Through working on Natchitoches Mayor Ronnie Williams’ election campaign he met Nicole Gray, entrepreneur and founder of Northwestern State’s Black Alumni Alliance, and a past president of the NSU Foundation Board of Directors.

While Darrin first heard about the Ben D. Johnson Education Center through volunteering as a student, it was Gray that sent him a job posting that led him to his current position.

Thinking about going into corporate law, Darrin feels the work he’s doing is gaining him experience with people from different backgrounds while teaching him about leadership and productivity.

One challenge he’s faced in his work at the Ben Johnson is the pressure to reach people who might not have the same existing knowledge of some of the topics that are introduced to them. The topics are time management, communication, professionalism, financial literacy, and digital literacy.

Bridget and Darrin work together a lot in their roles at the Ben Johnson, which recently accepted its first work readiness cohort under a new and improved Workforce Development Program. The program is now an affiliate of SNAP Employment and Training, a federally funded grant program designed to provide program participants opportunities to gain skills, training, work, or experience that will increase their ability to obtain regular employment and meet state or local workforce needs. This new program eliminates age restrictions so all SNAP-eligible Natchitoches residents ages 17 and above can be served.

While Darrin is in the classroom facilitating the curriculum with the students, Bridget is the driving force toward creating a center of support and a place for people to go.

“It feels significant,” Bridget explained. “So much of our lives over the past few years have been remote that it’s great to get back to direct contact.”

“It’s a surreal moment to help an individual,” said Darrin, who explained that he’s passionate about helping people get the help they need. He also wants to be an example to those who come from similar backgrounds of poverty and struggle of what can be achieved through the constant pursuit of improvement.

Darrin shared a quote from Eric Thomas, a motivational speaker, author, consultant, and minister.

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.”

Improvements in the program have led to broader access and a minimal commitment of eight days (over four weeks) from 10 am – 2 pm. This gives the staff time to address other barriers to employment including mental health, finances, physical checkups and more.

“It takes a lot to show up to work every day and all these things have to be in order,” said Bridget. “We help them create independence and stability.”

Bridget shared the words of American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“Just start,” said Bridget. “Nobody is going to make the change for you.”

In her spare time she rollerblades, embroiders, writes, participates in several book clubs, tries to explore Louisiana as much as possible, and goes to Baton Rouge to play beach volleyball, which she played in college.

And what’s a little competition between co-workers? Bridget and Darrin play pickleball together and are quick to debate who’s winning, or who’s won more games. Darrin said Bridget only beats him in ping pong because he’s usually wearing dress shoes. They also enjoy sparring in tennis and with their intellectual capabilities.

In his spare time Darrin loves to eat, particularly the gumbo from Lasyone’s. He also loves a good cookie, but don’t we all?! In every City he travels to Darrin has to test out an Arnold Palmer and a cookie.

As outsiders looking in, both Darrin and Bridget see the potential in the community, but they also see a need for change. Darrin said that while traditions are important, adhering too closely to tradition can also cause a town to become stagnant.

“I’m going to continue to advocate for a community that is more accepting and conducive to collegiate students of color and minority,” said Darrin, who plans to always stay involved with the Ben Johnson no matter where he might end up. “It will always have a special place in my heart.”

What’s come out of Bridget’s time in Natchitoches so far, is that it’s continuing to be a learning ground for her. She’s having conversations with everyone she meets and learning to relate to them through those dialogues. She’s continuing to build her ability and capacity for empathy.