Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Things We Leave Behind

At Spark, we measure our impact in the long term success of our partnerships. We want children served by our partners to have access to the resources they need to achieve their potential, and we do this by strengthening and sustaining amazing community programing.

To reach these goals, we often focus on the big picture (like impressive annual test results). But, the little things that bring smiles to the faces of the kids we serve can also have a lasting, important impact. When we bring travelers to experience our work, the time spent with the children leaves many inspiring memories. One-on-one attention is a powerful motivator and not quickly forgotten. But, sometimes leaving behind a few small tokens can help lengthen our presence in our new friends lives.

Our Zambian partner - Hope Ministries
Our January partnership trip to Zambia is a perfect illustration of the positive effects that these little things can have. We arrived in Zambia prepared to share our love, excitement and… hundreds of t-shirts and bracelets!

A couple of travelers arrived in Zambia each with an extra suitcase, filled to the brim with dark green t-shirts, generously contributed by Mid-America Merchandising. Three hundred and fifty t-shirts are not light luggage, but they were very well received, and now bare Hope Ministries and Spark Ventures logos. While shirts may be a small token of friendship, to us, they continue to serve as a physical illustration of our continued partnership. The students wear them on Fridays (just like a casual Friday here in Chicago... they get to dress down their uniforms once a week). The smiles on the children’s faces as they posed in the t-shirts say it all…

Thanks Mid-America Merchandising!
The whole group poses in their new t-shirts

Even Hope Ministries leaders get in on the action

A visual reminder of our partnership
Another highlight of from our January trip was sharing the “rainbow loom” bracelet trend with our Zambian friends. If you aren’t an American child (or parent of one), rainbow loom bracelets may be new to you. These modernized friendship bracelets are formed by weaving tiny rubber bands into an endless number of designs and patterns.

Our beautiful hand models

The rainbow loom trend has swept our nation and a couple of our January travelers couldn’t wait to include Hope Ministries on the fun. They arrived with over 600 bracelets made by elementary and middle school students from here in Chicago. And, brought along thousands of mini rubber bands. So, we spent an afternoon weaving, trading, and enjoying every brightly colored wrists. The verdict? In addition to deepening our friendship, it appears that the Zambian children are just as into rainbow loom bracelets as their American counterparts. Even some of the teachers got in on the action.

Rainbow loom-ing in action
Stacking the bracelets is half the fun!
In addition to leaving behind t-shirt for the entire school and some flashy homemade jewelry, there is another – less tangible – gift that our travelers repeatedly leave with the children children of Hope: the continued desire to learn. One of the longest standing activities on a Spark’s Partnership Trips is the Reading Program.

This program rewards top students with one-on-one reading time with our volunteers. What started as a way of fostering collaborative learning, has turned into an ongoing incentive to excel in the classroom. The children at Hope Community School know that if they study hard and do well, they may be chosen to participate in the Reading Program with Spark Partnership Trip participants.

Reading aloud to the group
Motivated and engaged in learning
The teachers at Hope Community School tell us that this motivation stays with the children when we are away and pushes them to thrive in ways they hadn’t before.

It is hard to believe that our January Partnership Trip was two months ago. Since time seems to continue moving at a rapid pace, we feel thankful to be able to reflect on the little things that have impacted us on past trips. And, whether Spark is engaging in activities that support our long-term goals or chipping away at our objectives through small gestures, we feel fortunate to be able to leave behind a part of ourselves during every visit and interaction with our partners.

Do you feel like you have something to leave behind?  Would you like to learn more about Spark and our partners?  We would love to travel with you!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Socializing for Good with the YPS

The Young Professionals of Spark (YPS), a community of young professionals dedicated to spreading awareness and raising support for Spark Ventures, recently held a delicious event!  

On Saturday, March 21st, the group got together with friends, family and others interested in international development to discuss Spark's mission and provide avenues for people to get involved.  

Dozens of people showed up to the Chop Shop in Wicker Park to enjoy mimosas and bloody mary's while mingling with those on the leadership council. People got the opportunity to learn more while signing up for future involvement in Spark.

The YPS's next event will be a Trivia Night on April 22nd from 7 – 9 pm at Schubas Tavern (3159 N Southport Ave). Tickets are $25 and include 2 drinks, light appetizers, and the opportunity to win prizes (including a Nexus 7 Tablet provided by Belly).

For additional information, please email YPSLC leader Brian Gloede at Or, click here to purchase tickets to the next great event.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Technori Pitch

I’ve long admired people who know how to communicate their ideas or passions in a short and powerful pitch. I was given that opportunity at Technori, a gathering for the start-up community in Chicago. After two and a half years of hosting their monthly pitch event, Technori has gained quite a following, and in October of last year they sold out the Chase Auditorium for a unique event. It was their first pitch night focused on social enterprises. The five of us who presented represented the wide spectrum of organizations that fall into the social enterprise category, with Spark Ventures falling somewhere in the middle, having a hybrid model of nonprofit international development work, sustained through for-profit business.

I’m fairly certain that the goal of these presentations is to make it look as easy and natural as possible, but I’ll tell you that the preparation to get to that point is significant. It was great to have the support of Technori and Square Planet during my preparation, as well as the Spark Staff who helped develop the slides, recruited supporters to be in the audience and listened to my practice pitches!

I’m like most people in that I think my voice sounds weird and I’m not very excited about circulating a video with me on camera for 5 minutes. However, if you’ve never heard the Spark story and model, this short presentation will give you the highlights as well as present the opportunity to be involved in our Grow Campaign. And if you like it – feel free to share it with some friends. The more people we can get involved with Spark Ventures, the greater impact we can have lifting children out of poverty through our model of business driven philanthropy.

Rich Johnson
Co-founder & CEO

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's about the little things

If you are familiar with Spark Ventures, you likely know that our Partnership Trips provide the opportunity for Spark Investors to meet our international partners first-hand. Partnership Trips are an incredible way to join in cultural experiences, form new friendships, bond with the children that Spark supports, and learn more about our work. What you might not know is that a portion of the fees from these trips are earmarked to address critical, real-time needs at our partner organizations. It has been exciting and rewarding to see these fees go to good use!

Last October, Las Tías was in dire need of a new refrigerator. As you can see in the picture below Sandra (the principal of the younger kids facility at Las Tías) is thrilled by the arrival of a shiny, new and functional fridge.

Sandra shows off the "before" and "after" refrigerator

A map of the world now serves as a focal point of the room

Most recently, trip fees were used to create a bright and inviting learning environment by revamping a room at the youth center. Here, the youngest children at Las Tías – ages 6-8 – are taken care of. Funds from a 2013 trip helped construct and repair the roofing on this space, and our February Executive Trip helped contribute to the murals you see here.

We love the vibrant colors and the educators are so happy that the children can now spend time in such a beautiful space!

Fun to learn with colorful numbers
Shapes and vowels as presented by lovable characters
A colorful map of Nicaragua helps the children learn about home

Interested in seeing the gorgeous murals first hand? Or maybe, you'd like to contribute to whatever high-need project Las Tías identifies next?

Learn more and join us on one of our upcoming Nicaragua Partnership Trips:
Spring Nicaragua Trip: April 21-27
Summer Nicaragua Trip: August 4-10

Monday, February 24, 2014

Escape the Polar Vortex with Spark in Nicaragua!

Tired of battling the cold and hearing words like "polar vortex" on a daily basis? Consider joining us on an upcoming Partnership Trip to Nicaragua. We will be traveling to visit our (tropically located) partner, Las Tías, on April 21-27, 2014.

In addition to an escape from the cold weather, Partnership Trips are an amazing international volunteer opportunity that includes unique cultural experiences, new friendships, opportunities to learn about Spark's work, and to bond with the children that Spark supports.

To learn more about our upcoming trips, click here.

We hope you can join us in April. Feel free to reach to our team with any questions about travel on this, or any of our trips. We promise a rewarding (and warming) experience!

P.S. Check out the post below for some more great photos of what to expect on a trip with us to Nicaragua...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chuck Norris is like Bacon. Universal.

One of my favorite parts of working at Spark is meeting new people who travel with us internationally. The time we spend together is an intense itinerary of spending time with our local partners, volunteering with our partners' beneficiaries, and getting to know the country by visiting its highlights. Another big aspect of what we do is discuss our model and its place in international development, which makes for great conversations and learning opportunities for those who are interested in what works, what doesn't, and what international partnerships look like on the ground. 

Our travelers participating in a home visit

Hearing new feedback and fresh perspectives, as well as being asked tough questions, from people who we either meet for the first time during our trips or get to know much better after having met through prior means, in turn becomes a great benefit for us at Spark. Typically that takes place and evolves over the several days that we spend together, each one ending in delicious dinners and reflecting on what happened during the day.

Group dinner

And then there is the silliness.. the jokes, things lost in translation, laughter, food and Chuck Norris analogies, more laughter, and things that we'll be cracking up over a few months down the road, of the you had to be there variety. Below is a little photo journal of some of the moments from our most recent trip, which ended yesterday. Such a pleasure to have been able to be a part of it and of the new friendships that were formed.


Warm welcome!
Welcome Dance
Girls showing their beautiful teeth while brushing
Meal time
Hyalker making new friends
Katie handing out high fives
Ali enjoying a group activity
Fred with the kids
Girls doing activities 
All smiles! 
Momotombo.  Beautiful Nicaragua!
Interested in joining us next time?  Click here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Investor Spotlight: Sue Bernstein

Our Investor Spotlight series focuses in on engaged members of the Spark Ventures community. This month, we sit down with Sue Bernstein who is one of the growing number of Spark supporters to have traveled with us to Nicaragua and Zambia to meet both of our partner organizations She most recently traveled to Zambia this January.

I am so impressed with the things Spark has accomplished at the Hope Community School, the Hope Orphanage, and the Hope Ventures chicken farm. In the relatively short time since my last visit, there are obvious changes and improvements to all of these places. But, the most compelling for me is how Spark's involvement has impacted the lives of the children, teachers and staff, the surrounding community, as well as the local and international volunteers.

Spark is not just handing out money. It is a true partnership which involves a lot of strategic planning and give and take... To achieve common goals and maintain the pride of everyone involved in Zambia. Rich and another Spark staff member, Lucy, spend considerable time here in Zambia throughout the year meeting with Charles, his staff, and their Board of Trustees helping to facilitate the growth of all the operations of the social and business enterprises.

Charles was so incredibly proud of how they have expanded the chicken farm from 2000 to 12000 chickens.

When Jan and I were inputting information about the children last week, we sat in their "Technology Center" while Stephanie worked with Teacher Lewis, the seventh grade teacher, as she gave him some more lessons in Excel and Word. It was so much fun to watch his face as he mastered tasks which will help him become so much more efficient.

Cephas, the young man who lived at the orphanage and is now a high school graduate taking computer classes, working at the chicken farm, and planning to attend university, has a future he probably never would have had without Spark's involvement.

The teachers at Hope Community School talk about how they have a regular salary, curriculum materials, textbooks, some continuing education, and the encouragement and support from Spark and our visits. The kids seek out Head Teacher Ngoma wanting to be our reading buddies. The children are energized by the attention they receive from us, even for just the few days we are there.

But my highlight of the trip was the little boy Elijah, who came to the orphanage a few days before we arrived. His parents are dead, and he lived with a grandmother who was struggling to take care of him. He was placed in the second grade. Moving to the orphanage, his life changed from sleeping on a cornmeal sack on the floor and receiving few regular meals (without the chance to attend school), to a life with Momma Agatha, a family of supportive older boys and girls at the orphanage, a bed with a blanket and three regular meals a day. At the beginning of our stay, he was quiet and reserved. But as the week went on, we watched him smile more, take part in the soccer and volleyball games, and dance and smile like the rest of the kids during our last dinner at the orphanage.

That's really what this is all about.

I feel privileged to be a part of it.


Sue Bernstein first traveled to Zambia with Spark Ventures in February of 2013. She returned this January with a close friend. Within the past year, Sue has also traveled with Spark Ventures to Nicaragua. She is the mother of Spark Ventures Program Manager, Stephanie Denzer.