In junior high, you might not have known what path your career would take, but chances are, you had adult role models you could emulate. philanthropy-spark

But what if you had never met an architect, lawyer, chef or production designer? That’s where Spark comes in. They take kids from underserved communities and match them with an adult mentor for a 10-week apprenticeship.

The program opens kids’ eyes to what careers are possible, and gets them excited about learning. Students are interviewed about their interests, dreams and ideas and then are given a choice of options for the apprenticeship.

Why was Spark founded?

“When our founder, Chris Balme, was teaching middle school in West Philadelphia, many of his students didn’t necessarily understand why math and science and reading were so important,” says Sarah Mayeda, executive director of Spark’s Chicago program. “He wanted to give 7th and 8th graders, who are at a time in their lives when they’re starting to wonder why school is important, a chance to see where it can really take them.

“Our goal is to help the students realize that you do use math and writing skills in the workplace, and that getting better at those skills will position you for success and open more doors for you in the future.”

You probably see a lot of amazing moments; tell us about a special one.

“One of our students was apprenticing at MK restaurant, and she and her mentor baked pies for the Mayor’s Thanksgiving, and they went to city hall and presented the mayor with two Thanksgiving pies,” she says. “It was so great to watch Rahm Emanuel meet one of our students and tell her he was proud of her and the steps she was taking to follow her dreams.”

What makes Spark unique?

“We work very hard to match students and mentors,” Mayeda says. She explains that it’s an individualized experience for each kid. So while one student is working with an executive chef, another is at an architecture firm building a model of his dream home, while someone else is participating in a mock trial at a major law firm. And it’s this hands-on experience, plus time spent with their mentor that makes the difference.

Students also take a Spark Leadership class at the same time as their apprenticeship, which helps make the link between workplace skills and what they’re learning in their classes, says Mayeda. They focus on communication skills and unlocking resources, while doing research to figure out what it’s going to take to reach their goals.

Spark is also very interested in measuring results. “The students are surveyed after their apprenticeship and we’re seeing a higher interest in school, a greater likelihood to ask adults for help, a greater understanding of what it takes to get from point A to point B,” Mayeda says. “We see better grades and better attendance.”

Spark by the numbers:

  • 125 apprenticeships created in Chicago last semester
  • 10 weeks, length of apprenticeship
  • $1000 sponsors an apprenticeship
  • 4 cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago
  • $0 cost to student and school
  • 2/7/2013 – Date of “Sugar Rush” fundraiser
  • 55% foundation funding, rest comes from corporate sponsors and individual donors
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