116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — A new program called SPARK in Johnson County is creating a safe space for teenagers of color by offering them a chance to try new recreational activities and learn about career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, art and math.
SPARK is a program that’s a part of United Action for Youth, a nonprofit that has been supporting young people and families since 1970 through prevention and intervention services to help them reach their goals. Prevention programming includes out-of-school activities that encourage children to connect and express themselves through creativity. Intervention programming offers support, advocacy, counseling and community referrals to youth and families facing adversity.
The program was named that by leaders who want to “spark” children’s curiosity in “as many opportunities and activities as we possibly can,” said Tony Branch, youth engagement director at United Action for Youth. SPARK scheduled a three-week program twice this summer in June and July at no cost to families. Middle and high school students in the program are learning and exploring different passions, hobbies and recreational activities such as:
- Challenge Course at the University of Iowa, where students climb ropes up to 30 feet high for personal growth or working as a team;
- Pickleball at GreenState Family Field House in Coralville;
- Archery with the Fin & Feather outdoors store in Iowa City;
- Hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and rock climbing;
- And bike repair and found parts crafting with Iowa City Bike Library.
Children from historically marginalized communities — particularly Black boys — may not have had the space or resources to experience these kind of activities, Branch said. He hopes SPARK can remove those barriers and provide a space for them to try and experience something new — an “’ah-ha’ moment that helps propel them toward successful adulthood,” Branch said.
Branch, who grew up in Barbados, said he didn’t feel supported in the education system growing up, an experience some of these students may have. “I wasn’t seen for much more than a kid who would end up being a bum and not amount to anything,” he said.
Branch said he was “lucky enough” to have a family who supported him. “The way I go about programming is the way my life story unraveled,” Branch said. It was “critical” for him to have supportive adults in his life who provided him opportunities he “wouldn’t have ever dreamed of or thought about.”
SPARK started in Iowa City middle and high schools during the 2021-22 school year, connecting with 80 students to meet weekly with adult mentors.
“These kids need a space to be able to be honest about what’s on their minds and hearts,” said Dustin Eubanks, youth engagement advocate for SPARK. “There are a lot of narratives we’re looking to push back against and process with those kids. … What does it mean to harness that Black joy and power and Latino joy and power?”
For example, the students during the school year watched and discussed the film “Black Boys,” a documentary about young Black men and their experience in the United States. Students were urged to challenge the negative messaging they’ve received.
The documentary explains that Black boys grow up in a world that is not built for them and how that impacts their sense of self worth. It examines systemic inequality in the American educational system and the achievement gap for Black youth, which starts as early as kindergarten when they are denied the quality education experienced by many of their non-Black peers, according to the documentary.
“The documentary talks about how the Black male body is dehumanized and commodified,” Branch said. “Black boys see themselves as athletes or performers, and that’s one of the only ways for them to earn a living. That is a way, but beyond your body, you have a mind capable of doing anything you want to do. You can live up to that potential. You can live out whatever you see for yourself and explore other career paths beyond athlete.”
There are 30 youth engaged in no-cost SPARK summer programming in its first year.
At the end of the summer, another SPARK program will take a dozen high school students on a backpacking trip to Yellow River State Forest in Harpers Ferry in Northeast Iowa, providing them with hiking equipment, including boots and clothes. SPARK is partnering with Johnson County Conservation for additional gear like tents, backpacks and food.
The SPARK program is raising funds to cover material and equipment costs for students taking part in outdoor and recreational excursions now and in the future. People wanting to donate to SPARK can do so at unitedactionforyouth.org/donate select the “Write a comment” box on the donation link and write “SPARK.”
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