I grew up in northeast Ohio. It’s a beautiful place, with Lake Erie to the north, rolling farmland all around, and some great cities nearby. Some of my friends from school were wealthy and some were a layoff-from-the-factory or an emergency-room-visit away from not being able to make rent. It always seemed unfair that it should be this way; I was growing up in the American heartland – the land of opportunity. The truth was that not everyone had equal opportunities.
Throughout college, I became more engaged in issues of economic development, and afterward, I moved to South Texas to be a Teach For America corps member to fight poverty in the classroom. I firmly believe that the best economic stimulus is a diploma and a degree.
After teaching a few years, I moved to the Bay Area to continue working in education. San Francisco always seemed like a shining, near-perfect city. And with one of the best public universities nearby in Berkeley, surely, I thought, the Bay Area would be different. What I found was, it wasn’t.
Beneath the stunning views from the hills in the East Bay, and the fog in San Francisco, there are many people struggling.
I wanted to apply my skills as a teacher to help fight poverty for the next generation. I found Spark, and instantly applied for a job.
Spark is a national nonprofit that creates apprenticeships to bring underserved middle school students out of the classroom and into the workplace for individualized mentoring that results in educational success and powerful career ambitions. The program targets underserved middle school students who show academic and behavioral warning signs linked to a risk of later dropping out. We try to catch students before the thought of dropping out crosses their minds by asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We get a variety of answers: police officer, hairdresser, video game designer, fireworks technician (my personal favorite), among many others. Spark matches students with mentors in career fields that interest them (and of course we take safety into account, so no, the student was not placed with a fireworks technician) for a 10-week apprenticeship.
Spark recognizes a clear need and opportunity for the apprenticeship model to foster deep, lasting impact. For example, Oakland has one of the highest violent crime rates in the U.S., with rates of youth gang involvement above county and state levels. One in five residents live below the poverty line, and youth account for nearly half of the city’s food bank clients. Only 46% of Oakland youth go to college. Such challenges are unevenly distributed by socioeconomic status and race, with predominantly low-income, minority areas in West and East Oakland bearing the greatest stress.
By partnering with schools serving these high-need neighborhoods, Spark reaches youth potentially cut off from people, places, and experiences that can inspire them to commit to school as a path to a positive future.
A mentor is one small part of the fight against poverty, but small things can go a long way for a 13 year old. If you’re interested in supporting Spark and inspiring the next generation, check out our volunteer page or donate here.