Local nonprofit lighting a spark in area youth


A Minneapolis-based nonprofit is lighting a fire in the hearts and minds of local students.

Called Spark-Y, the organization aims to involve youth in hands-on sustainable projects and experiences by working with partners in the local community.

For 17-year-old Makenna Short, who interned with Spark-Y in 2016, that meant taking on a daunting responsibility: Leading the construction of a timber-framed picnic pavilion in Minneapolis in partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation Board. Short admits she went into the internship project, one of the largest organized by Spark-Y, without much leadership experience or background knowledge.

spark y youth build picnic pavilion in page

“At first all the responsibilities took me by shock,” she says. “I had never worked with power tools before, I knew nothing about timber framing.”

But six weeks later, a Minneapolis neighborhood had a new gathering space, and Short had a newfound sense of empowerment. 

“Spark-Y has given us the confidence to know that we can do this,” she says.

Short’s internship experience is representative of the greater impact Spark-Y has in the local community, says Zach Robinson, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“It’s about engaging youth, getting them out of their seat and making things happen,” he says. “It takes the learning out of the textbook, and puts it into a real-world application.”

Connecting the dots

Spark-Y’s internship program is just one part of the nonprofit’s wide range of programs. The organization also partners with Minneapolis schools to provide sustainable projects that students can complete for credit. The nonprofit also maintains a 1,700-square-foot urban agriculture lab and educational resource center in Minneapolis.

The model is clearly catching on. In its first six years, Spark-Y has nearly doubled the number of youth reached each year, according to Robinson. In 2016 alone, the nonprofit served more than 1,000 kids, with the majority coming from school programming, and the rest through the internship program, field trips, and the urban ag lab.

spark y youth at urban agriculture lab in page

The organization is also attracting the attention and support of key corporate sponsors like RBC Wealth Management, which directs much of its corporate support to protecting fresh water around the world.

Spark-Y’s focus on sustainability made the organization an ideal candidate for support. The organization’s ag lab, for example, utilizes aquaponics to grow produce using 90 percent less water than traditional growing. In 2015 and 2017, Spark-Y received grants of $10,000.

In 2016, RBC increased that support to $100,000.

That grant has helped to support the growth of Spark-Y’s innovative ag lab, which not only provides educational resources and several jobs for students, but also helps sustain the organization’s growth. The ag lab features a complete micro greens operation, and all produce grown in the lab is sold to local restaurants, which provides a sustainable revenue model.

spark y youth in classroom in page

Hal Tearse, director of RBC Wealth Management’s Minnetonka branch, volunteers on the nonprofit’s advisory board, and says he was impressed by that business model, as well as the breadth of Spark-Y’s programming.

“I think the work and programming they’re doing is really interesting,” he says. “It involves kids in an ongoing way that will hopefully lead them towards better academic performance in school. The kids are connecting the dots between what they’re doing with Spark-Y and what they’re doing in school.”

And when those dots get connected, like they did for Makenna Short in 2016, the kids “feel like they can make a difference in their own lives,” Robinson adds.

Now, Robinson and the staff at Spark-Y have their eyes on the future. The organization recently completed its first strategic plan, laying out a vision for the next few years which includes adding more school partnerships, creating permanent jobs for 50 youth each year (a significant increase from the current eight jobs available), and most importantly, increasing the number of young people it serves each year.

“Youth face a lot of challenges right now,” Robinson says. “By giving them skills like problem solving, leadership and critical thinking, which they gain through our programs, they’re being prepared to go out and change the world.”

Photos courtesy of Spark-Y


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