[The Washington Post]

Khalil Bridges

Khalil Bridges listens to the pitch of U.S. Army recruiter Christopher Smith during a career day event at Renaissance Academy High School on Wednesday in Baltimore. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Khalil Bridges was at his former high school on Wednesday, writing thank-you notes to strangers, when the phone rang.

“I don’t know you, but I love you,” a man on the other end said. “You inspire me, and I believe in you.”

The man then joined nearly 250 other people who have donated to a GoFundMe account set up for Bridges after he was featured in a Washington Post article that detailed his struggles to graduate from one of Baltimore’s most troubled high schools, a place where three young men were lost to violence this school year.

Community Schools Coordinator Hallie Atwater set up the fund after offers to help the 18-year-old pay for college started pouring in — and kept coming.

She set the goal at $30,000, estimating the amount it would cost to help Bridges pay for two years of living expenses and tuition at Baltimore City Community College.

On Thursday afternoon, the fund hit its goal as the numbers continued to climb.

“This is going to do more than help my dream come true,” Bridges said. “This is going to set me on the right path to actually be something in life.”

He said he plans to go to the community college and then attend a four-year institution.

“Just knowing they helped me on the right path, I’m not going to let them see me fall,” Bridges said. “I’m going to do all I can to make sure I graduate.”

On the fund’s page, the donations range from $10 to $250 to one anonymous gift of $10,000. They are also filled with motivating messages:

“Soar, Khalil, soar!”

“It takes a lot of courage to keep going when you have every excuse to stop.”

“I believe in you. You can make a difference in this world. And once you complete your education and make your way in the world, remember to give back.”

“Khalil, I wished someone was there for my grandson. I lost him to the system. I don’t have much and I hope what I have donated will multiple for you and many other young people.”

“Keep moving forward and know that you have a village of folks who believe in you.”

In the Post article, Bridges told of living in a house by himself for three weeks without electricity or gas after his mother, who has a chronic illness that weakens her muscles, was taken to a hospital, then a nursing home. He credits Renaissance Academy High School with helping him in ways that go beyond education. Just a year ago, he was a teenager who saw drug dealing as the only way to earn money no one else was giving him. Now, he aims to get a degree and work as an athletic trainer or a physical therapist.

He said he also hopes to one day leave Baltimore, if only temporarily.

“I want my mother to see the rest of the world,” he said. “I haven’t seen much of the world.”

Atwater said Bridges has been overwhelmed by the outpouring and astonished that it has come from people who have never met him. The two of them, she said, have spent the past few days talking about practical matters, such as how a bank account works, and discussing his future goals, which are now much more certain that when he graduated earlier this month. He works at McDonald’s, but the unpredictability of his shifts left him unsure how he was going to pay rent and afford to enroll in community college.

“We also spent a long time talking about how Baltimore is filled with kids just like him, and so are many places across the country,” said Atwater, a clinical social worker who works at the school through a University of Maryland School of Social Work initiative called Promise Heights. “Now that he feels taken care of, his focus has shifted to his friends that don’t have the same support.”

Renaissance Academy sits in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhood, a mile from the epicenter of the riots last April that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who suffered fatal injuries in police custody. On Thursday, just hours before the Khalil fund reached its goal, the sole officer charged with murder in Gray’s death was found not guilty.

Atwater said he asked her who would take his place and fight for the school when he moves on. At graduation, Bridges was awarded the principal’s scholar award because he “demonstrated evolvement and resiliency” and stepped forward to fight for the school when it faced the possibility of closing.

“He talked about how it gets a lot harder before it gets better,” Atwater said.

Khalil said that he still has more thank-you notes to write, but that if he could speak directly to everyone who pledged to the fund, he would want them to know he considers this a one-time opportunity and he plans to “build on it.”

“I would like to say thank you for all the hope and support and motivation you’ve been giving me,” he said. “I love y’all for believing in me.”