I began volunteering with Spark in the fall of 2016, but my interest in Spark began a little less than a year before that when I was at CEB, now Gartner, for a “Welcome Day” and my final interview. At Welcome Day, we had the opportunity to learn about CEB’s culture, including their partnership with Spark. I was instantly hooked and decided that I was going to find a way to volunteer with Spark no matter what.
What drew me to Spark was its mission to help students understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their futures. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I saw inequality play out in my own backyard. During my junior year of high school, I participated in a “School Swap” exchange program in which my suburban school partnered with a Detroit high school and we got to experience a day in the life at one another’s school. Those two days gave me a glimpse into the reality – we had a full computer lab, a library brimming with books, and fully functioning heat system, all of which I took for granted. My buddy was flabbergasted at the resources I had.
That experience is something I’ve carried with me ever since. Understanding that the landscape of Chicago was similar to Detroit, I felt it was important while living here to contribute in positive ways to the community around me and Spark presented me with a chance to do so in a respectful, meaningful way.
During the 2016-17 school year, I worked with Laela, a 7th grade student at Deneen School of Excellence on the South Side. During our first semester together, we created a business plan for a health center for low-income families as a tribute to her Granny who had passed away that year. At our weekly Wednesday sessions, we talked about many things – catching up on the latest middle school drama, debriefing last week’s Empire episode, and of course, topics pertinent to our business plan.
One day, while creating the mission statement for the health center, we talked about the difference between equality and equity to decide which word was more appropriate. At the time, I did not recognize that the lively discussion that followed, including visuals and creating different scenarios to increase her understanding, was an invaluable teachable moment for us both.
A month later at Share Your Spark, Maureen Lang, Executive Board Member for Spark in Chicago, asked Laela about her favorite part of Spark that semester. Laela paused. I assume she’s going to tell Maureen about having to swipe in with my badge or the times we snuck hot chocolate, but she doesn’t. She proceeds to tell Maureen that her favorite part of Spark was expanding her vocabulary and proceeds to explain the difference between equality and equity.
I remember calling my dad as I walked home that day to tell him about Laela. How proud I was of her growth over the semester, her poise presenting her business plan, and of course, that moment with Maureen. In that moment of reflection with my dad, I realized how much Spark gave me. Sure I gave two hours of my time a week, but in the end, I received so much more. Over the past year, Laela taught me so much – about her own experiences, about middle school life, and even more so about myself.