Nadia Lopez transforms her life — and that of a struggling neighborhood — through the school she founded
Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn was born from the journey of my self-discovery and desire to create a learning institution that would honor children. Considered amongst the most disadvantaged and violent of communities in New York City, hopelessness resonated from those who live here. I saw beyond the despair and found that in fact there was a sense of unwavering resilience. Ultimately, despite the circumstances that these children and their families faced — they wanted to be acknowledged and respected — and I wanted to work towards giving them what they deserved.
My students face adversities that most adults would never want to endure.
Whether it is being raised by a crack addict, having no food in their home, being sexually abused, or dealing with a number of other post-traumatic stress related issues, my work has been to provide a safe, loving, and nurturing learning environment. My experiences of being raised in a single-family household to becoming a single mother, allowed me to empathize with my students on a level that many would not be able to relate to.
When I was in my early twenties, I firmly believed that the measure of success was based upon what society hailed as the ‘American Dream’. By the time I was twenty-four, I finished college, owned a home, had my first child, and worked for a company that offered lucrative pay and benefits. From the outside everything looked perfect, but in reality I was living an absolute nightmare.
I was subjected to mental and physical abuse in my marriage, along with numerous acts of adultery. For those who knew me well, it was hard to believe that I would allow myself to endure such a toxic relationship. And yet, I never wanted to have my daughter experience growing up in a single-parent household. I knew all too well the feeling of hurt and disappointment when my parents separated when I was only in seventh grade. I kept up a good face, but on the inside I was ashamed and slowly spiraling into depression, which led me to be hospitalized briefly.
I knew in that moment I was not living my best self and I needed to be in a space where I would just think, breathe and learn to love myself without the fear of judgment from others.
I found the solitude I needed visiting friends in Georgia. For nearly three months I stayed with them and their family, overcoming emotional pain and rebuilding my faith.
When I returned to New York, I returned to my corporate job, but I missed the time spent with my daughter. I wondered about her school-age years and whether she would experience a teacher whose classroom encouraged a love for learning and inspired greatness? The question came across my mind almost every day, until I finally made the decision to pursue a career in education through an alternative teaching program, which allowed me to teach while earning a degree in Special Education. Finally, I was pursuing my passion and my marriage seemed to be improving, until a year later when my then husband woke up one morning to tell me he was no longer in love and decided he needed to be happy. I felt betrayed and unable to face my students who I needed to teach that day. It took all of the energy and courage for me to drive to work, only to sit in my car for nearly an hour crying because I felt like a failure. It was in that moment I saw the school’s principal. She looked me in the eyes and asked, “What’s wrong?” With a heavy heart, I responded, “He says he doesn’t love me anymore and that he’s leaving to be happy.”
Without hesitation, she reminded me of all the children who showed up every day, seeking my love and guidance.
So, even if one person didn’t care to value who I am, the children in the school will remind me and never let me forget. That day, those words and the children in my classroom saved my life. I realized then and there that my happiness was not contingent upon one man, but actually living in my purpose.
Over time, my personal experience led me to design and implement programs that would focus on the social-emotional aspect of learning. I created a club for girls that would allow them the opportunity to receive mentorship, while giving them a safe space to share and work through their struggles. For the first time, I realized how much pain existed within our classrooms and that these children had no guidance or support to deal with it.
Three years later, I became the founding teacher at an all-girls school where my mission became to empower girls of color through education and mold them into leaders who would impact their communities. It was one of the most rewarding experiences and profound moments in my life. The girls, who ranged from eleven to thirteen years of age, were inquisitive, impressionable, and remarkable.
I saw myself in each of those beautiful girls and decided that they would learn the power of self-love, forgiveness, and not worrying about the judgment of others.
Twice a week I conducted a leadership workshop, then managed an after-school club that taught life skills. On any given day more than thirty girls would attend.
Being with my girls all day gave me great joy, but I longed for a co-ed setting because I knew that our young men needed just as much support as our young women — we needed to heal our communities as a whole. Reflecting on my relationship, I wondered how many missed opportunities there were for so many of our young men to receive mentorship and the guidance to manage their own personal issues. In many ways I knew that education would be the platform for me to offer hope and the love that so many children needed in their most formidable years.
It’s been six years since Mott Hall Bridges Academy opened its doors and has become a beacon of hope for the community of Brownsville. I have created She Is Me for our girls, and also I Matter, to provide our boys with positive models through mentoring and the opportunity to engage in dialogue about issues that impact their community.
My first graduation class is now headed to their senior year of high school, preparing for college, while I make room for our new incoming sixth graders.
Imagine, out of the pain of one man walking away — doors have opened for so many children to walk in — and fill my heart.
Isn’t life curiously divine that way? When we are willing to see things differently — we make room for endless opportunity. Every action matters. What thing could you do in your community? When we heal one person, we heal us all.
Little did I know, but Nadia Lopez was already in my house — here on my coffee table, featured in the iconic Humans of New York Stories. ~ Kristen Noel
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