Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding on both ends, but as many professionals know, time is a valuable commodity. Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program that brings middle-schoolers to local companies and organizations, has found a way to combat this. Students are paired up with a mentor to receive direct guidance and to work on projects related to their interests in the company’s local office. Originally launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, Spark expanded to Chicago in 2011 and worked with 68 students that year. Now in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, Englewood, and Near Southside, 11 schools and 400+ students are paired up with Chicago companies to provide mentor relationships between middle-schoolers and professionals.
Lindsay Horwood, who works at Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes, began volunteering for Spark at her previous employer and brought the connection over to Vibes. Since 2012, Vibes and Spark have impacted the young minds of many, providing career exploration and self-discovery opportunities for these middle schoolers. Sahrish Saleem, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Spark, says the program helps students “understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their future.” This year in Chicago, students are working in orthodontics, constructing remote control cars, creating websites, and even rewriting Macbeth to make it more modern and student-friendly.
Since their partnership, Vibes has consistently been recruiting new volunteers for Spark, one of which is Jennifer DeCilles. Horwood and DeCilles say they enjoy watching their mentees grow throughout the program. DeCilles says Vibe’s connection with Spark has given her an “understanding that in being a mentor, you can just be a positive presence or an ear for someone to talk to.”
In the Fall, students work in Spark Labs, where they visit a variety of companies and get to see what each one does on a day-to-day basis. Come Spring, Spark matches mentors and mentees based on skills used in the workplace and interests of the students. They work on a project that they present on “Share Your Spark,” a culminating showcase held in Daley Plaza that Saleem says is like “a carnival meets a science fair.” Students, mentors, and anyone interested in viewing the projects the students have created celebrate together the accomplishments of the students.
Spark works with students who might not have been exposed to an office environment otherwise. “Sometimes they are less than a mile from the office, but they live in very different worlds,” Horwood said, highlighting the exposure the students get to the corporate environment but also the insight she now has to Chicago Public Schools. Both Horwood and DeCilles have found themselves more engaged in CPS and the education system at large because they work with individuals who are directly affected by it.
For 14 years nationally and 7 years in Chicago, Spark has impacted the lives of many young individuals. To continue doing this, they rely on donations to help support the program. This month is the Mentoring Matters Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that allows mentors to share their mentoring stories within their personal networks. This year, the goal is to raise $40,000. Funds help support transportation for students, background checks for mentors, and general program supplies and maintenance.
Spark and Vibes are making a very real difference in the lives of these young individuals in Chicago. Students are gaining real-life experience in the workplace, building social-emotional skills, and working on team-building, all while uniting diverse communities of students, parents, and professionals. And in the end, DeCilles says, it’s just about “being a friend to these middle-schoolers.”
CALL TO ACTION
- May is Spark’s designated month to fundraise for its Chicago partnerships, and they have a goal to raise $40,000. Donate here!
- Interested in partnering your business with Spark? They’d love that! Find out more information here.
- Check out the program in action! Attend this year’s (free!) “Share Your Spark” Day on June 1st from 3 to 5 PM in Daley Plaza and support the students in the program.