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SPARK Program Leaves No Room for Exclusion

SPARK program participants gather around to hear University of Scranton and Scranton Preparatory School student mentors talk about bullying and how to overcome it.
August 10, 2018
By: Anastasia McClendon ’20, student correspondent

“We need you,” one mentor said to a boy sitting out, “and your dancing!”

With “The Spark” by musical artist Afrojack playing in the background, kids danced around during a game of musical chairs at The University of Scranton’s Retreat Center at Chapman Lake.

For one week in the summer, children from diverse backgrounds are brought together by SPARK, a program in which every participant feels needed.

Started in 2011 by Daniel Marx, a University of Scranton graduate and mathematics teacher at Scranton Preparatory School, and Patricia Vaccaro, director of the University’s Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice, the SPARK program has always been a place to foster inclusivity.  

Even during a competitive game of musical chairs, the children ranging in age from 12 to 16 are encouraged to support each other and have fun. 

“We wanted to have a positive impact on community kids and the other thing was to offer it as an opportunity to our students as a growing experience,” Vaccaro said. 

Students from the University and Scranton Prep volunteer to mentor and lead lessons in the summer to children who are too young to work, but are also too old for summer camp.

Five groups, each with two University students and three Scranton Prep students, help serve breakfast, offer companionship, teach and encourage the children who come to participate in the SPARK program.

“[Here] they can learn to be themselves. We just tell them to be OK with who they are and try not to be someone they’re not. That also comes across in all of the topics they discuss this year,” Vaccaro said.

Each day a group presents a different topic to the children, such as bullying, individuality, social media, relationships and personal wellness.   

“It’s really the University students and the Scranton Prep students that are the heart of this and we’re just here to critique and make their programs the best they can be,” said Lauren Roote, a mathematics teacher at Scranton Prep whose been part of the SPARK program for two years.

It isn’t only the children who grow from the SPARK experience; it affects the mentors as well. After the game of musical chairs, a group of five mentors from both the University and Scranton Prep gave a presentation tackling the issue of bullying.

As she swayed back and forth and held a notebook in her shaking hands,

one mentor shared her powerful story on how bullying had continued to affect her life, even at that very moment. As she finished, everyone applauded her bravery and a few children wiped their tears away.

“Our students have to dig deep and work hard … They really are transformed by this,” Vaccaro said. 

While the children go home at the end of the day, the mentors stay over night at the Retreat Center, where they’re able to further bond and connect with their peers. 

“It’s important that they do stay because they form this bond as a team and as a group. I don’t think it would have the same effect if they were leaving and coming back everyday,” Roote said.

Shy and timid children break out of their shells and brighten up, according to Vaccaro. The SPARK program leaves no one forgotten or left in the dark because as Afrojack says, “We all got the spark!”

“Really, our goal is to just help some of the kids feel better about themselves” Vaccaro said.  

 

Anastasia McClendon ’20, Chinchilla, is an English major at The University of Scranton.
Anastasia McClendon ’20, Chinchilla, is an English major at The University of Scranton.
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