Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Photos from our First Full Day

Check out a glimpse of the first full day of our travels in Nicaragua... it was a busy day!

Cathedral from down below.

Sue & Jay as we explored the roof of that same cathedral. The only one (of 17 cathedrals in Leon) without an official name, it is just referred to as the basilica.

The traditional dance of Nicaragua is always a highlight of the welcome program….as well as the customary kiss on the side of the cheek that every visitor receives after the dance.

Newly painted murals both inside and out. In our first volunteer session with the kids, trip participants got the stats on their partners for the week.

Husband and wife team Jackie & Jay bonding with their boys after just one day!
(Left: Jackie & Luis; Right: Jay & Alex)

We made nametags (Jaimie, Zambia veteran with new friends).

Elly, Sue & Jan at sunset at Suyapa beach

Amazing dinner with our group and the whole Las Tias staff.

If you didn’t see your friends in these photos… stay tuned. You’ll see them tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Poultry Farm Hatches New Success

The Zambian Poultry Farm has hit and surpassed quite a few milestones over the past months. After starting with 2,500 chickens, the Poultry Farm scaled production and welcomed 12,000 chicks last December.

The farm’s strategic partnership with Zambeef - one of the largest poultry suppliers in Zambia - has contributed to some of the recent measurable success. Zambeef purchases the chicks when they are fully grown and supplies special feed at a discounted rate throughout the cycle.

We are very proud to report that the Poultry Farm’s latest achievements are no less impressive as Hope has completed the best cycle performance to date.

Last week, Hope Ventures finished their third outgrower cycle of 13,000 chicks. The farm finished their third cycle on a very strong note. The chicks reached target weights and arrived at only a 2.58% mortality rate (well below the 5% industry standard).

With a strong team in place, and the good momentum of this cycle under their belts, we have confidence in the capacity of the farm to continue to grow and reach new milestones in operations and overall profitability.

Stay tuned for further updates on the farm's growth as the team increases farm profitability and works towards financially sustaining Hope Ministries.

Are you interested in visiting the farm to see the amazing changes firsthand?

Join us on the July Partnership Trip.

Spark CEO Excited for Newest Partnership Trip

A warm Spark welcome from lookout point at Lake Managua with Momotombo Volcano in the background

It was great to meet all nine of our trip participants at the Managua airport on Monday for Spark’s April Partnership Trip. Despite the recent earthquakes, everyone chose to join us and it should be a fantastic week. Our travelers come from 4 different states, including 6 new Spark travelers and 2 individuals who were on our very first Partnership Trip to Zambia in 2008!

Even after traveling, our participants seemed eager to get started on our adventure. The drive from the airport to Leon was highlighted by the a picturesque view of Momotombo Volcano.

We spent the evening settling in, unloaded the myriad of supplies brought by our travelers, and getting excited for the coming days. We hope you’ll stay tuned for further updates from our adventures this week.


Driving to Leon!
Unloading in Leon - the trip participants brought
a lot of supplies and games to share with the kids

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