Months ago, I had the pleasure of bumping into Rebecca Velasco, VISTA Outreach Coordinator for Spark, Los Angeles, at an EAL/LA – EPIP mixer in Silverlake. After speaking with Rebecca for some time, I became interested in the organization for which she works and its programs. Spark
is a 501(c)(3) that focuses on providing mentorship for underserved youth in (at present) urban communities where students in need of community and scholastic engagement are paired with professionals eager to sow positive seeds in their communities. The program serves as both a mechanism for education and mentorship.Post-mixer, Rebecca and I met for lunch to share stories about Spark and EAL/LA. We realized through discussion that there is indeed a clear connection between the mission of Spark and one of the goals of EAL/LA: Mentorship.Before I go into too many more details, I’ll let Rebecca tell you in her own words about Spark and its mentorship program:
Kristin Runnels (KR): Rebecca, can you tell me a little bit about the history of Spark? Where did it originate? Who developed the concept of the organization? What were his/her motivations?
Rebecca Velasco (RV): Spark was founded in 2004 in Redwood City, CA by educators Melia Dicker and Chris Balme. During their time as middle school teachers, Balme and Dicker witnessed the dropout crisis firsthand. They felt that this crisis needed to be addressed early—in middle school—with an approach that engages students who were already losing interest in school. They saw that students eagerly engaged with learning when provided with active, collaborative, and personally relevant projects, and believed that professional workplaces could serve as fertile ground for this kind of learning. Spark launched its first programs in 2005.
KR: With the founder’s motivations in mind, how has Spark evolved, programmatically, since the organization’s inception?
RV: Since the program’s humble beginnings in 2005, Spark expanded into San Francisco in 2008. Los Angeles was selected as Spark’s second major geographic focus in light of the city’s staggering dropout crisis where Spark established a Los Angeles office and launched two Los Angeles programs in Spring 2010. Spark’s program will launch in Chicago this fall, with plans to expand to Philadelphia by 2013.
KR: Through Spark, both mentors and students can gain valuable, relevant, hands-on experience exploring a career he/she is interested/engaged in. What types of arts mentors has Spark brought on to mentor students who wish to have a career in the arts?
RV: Since opening an L.A. office in the spring of 2010, Spark has served four schools over the course of three school semesters and this fall will serve five schools! Because there have been only three apprenticeship sessions so far (each session is one school semester), our ability to find great mentors in the arts has been a slower process since we are just now beginning to establish ourselves in the community. Thus far, we’ve worked with a children’s book illustrator, photographers, dancers, graphic artists, and theatre professionals.
KR: Can you give the readers of this blog a sample testimony from both mentor and mentee?
RV: Our most prominent partner in the arts field has been Center Theatre Group; last session Ashley Opstad mentored Karina from the Westlake/MacArthur Park community and taught her all about the work that Center Theatre Group does. It was an amazing apprenticeship. Below is an e-mail written by Ashley to a potential volunteer who wanted to hear about her experience:
I’m so happy to hear that you are interested in partnering up with Spark. I had a phenomenal experience. First off, I’m the Educational Services Coordinator at Center Theatre Group – and I thought, what kid has a dream of working in the Education Department at a nonprofit theatre company? Isn’t Spark about partnering up students and a professional in their dream job? Yes…and no. I was partnered with Karina, a seventh grade student from Camino Nuevo Burlington near downtown. She expressed an interest in acting and perhaps running an acting studio – but she has never acted before and her exposure to live theatre was limited, almost nonexistent. During our apprenticeship, I planned activities that would open her eyes to the many career possibilities in the arts and things that she would find enjoyable. We went on a tour of our theatres, she toured the costume/prop warehouse, I introduced her to all the different departments, she met with graphics and learned about creating show posters etc. We spent some time in Education as well – but for the most part it was a company-wide apprenticeship that I coordinated.
Karina came in a very quiet, shy girl and over the course of the semester she completely opened up. I may be biased (I totally am), but she also nailed her final presentation to her peers, parents, and teachers at the final Discovery Night event. It was such a valuable experience, not only for Karina, but for me and all my colleagues that she interacted with. For the fall we are looking to find a couple people in the building that will take on an apprentice. We will have each of those individuals work one-on-one with their students, but also occasionally team up for some group activity – like a costume shop tour or backstage tour.
I totally recommend taking on an apprentice or two in the fall!
KR: I thought the same thing Ashley did when I thought about the possibility of being a mentor! “I work at a foundation; what kid has a dream of becoming an officer at a foundation that supports classical music?” Seeing how Ashley made this opportunity work for her has inspired me to think outside the box in discovering how I could potentially mentor someone who has maybe never been exposed to the music world that I sometimes take for granted.
One last question: What is the overall response from those who choose to mentor through your program, once the program has come to an end?
RV: Based on a spring 2011 program survey, 96% [out of 55 total] of Apprentice Teachers (ATs) in Los Angeles reported feeling very satisfied with their relationship with their students and had positive feelings about the apprenticeship overall. Despite whether or not ATs can commit to the next semester’s program and stay involved as a mentor, nearly all of our ATs express interest in staying involved in one way or another – whether that’s volunteering again, agreeing to help us scout for mentors, help us fundraise, or connect us with their alumni networks. Many of our ATs want to stay connected with their mentee, and often find ways of staying in touch with them once the program is over.
I hope that you, the reader, have had your interest sparked (ha!) by this wee interview, and will find your way to EAL/LA’s upcoming general meeting on Wednesday, September 14th at 6:30 p.m. at Spark’s offices. At this meeting, Rebecca will discuss Spark’s mentorship program briefly and answer any questions that you may have for her. Following Rebecca’s presentation, EAL/LA’s own Talia Gibas, participant of EAL/LA’s 2010-11 Arts Professional Advisor Link, or A.P.A.L., will talk about how A.P.A.L. has enriched her professional development through her own mentorship.
Kristin Runnels serves as Executive Co-Chair and Community Partners Liaison of Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles. She is also Grants Manager at the Colburn Foundation and just launched her own jewelry line, Amatistrad Jewelry. When she is not kept busy by three professional pursuits, she studies the art of vegan cooking and dreams up creative ways to cut her kitty’s nails without getting bitten.