Matching kids with adults who live their dream
Chris Balme puts together at-risk teens and business-world mentors who show them a brighter future.
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The public school was in bad shape, with a high dropout rate. While walking back to Wharton, Balme realized he was "seeing all these resources, these skyscrapers, and yet these kids had no idea what was right there all around them."Skip to next paragraph
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That's when the puzzle pieces clicked together. "The problem and the solution were right next to each other," he says.
In 2004, he and Melia Dicker founded Spark. For the first two years neither took a salary; all the funds they raised went into the program. Today Spark has a staff of 16 and a $1.1 million annual budget.
Apprenticeships are "not rocket science," says Holly Depatie, Spark board chair. But other mentoring programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, while pairing youngsters with adults, don't specifically target learning about jobs.
So far, Spark has created more than 700 apprenticeships in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. In 2011 the program will begin operating in Chicago's public schools. "We're at the end of the runway, and there is some major lift coming under our wings," Ms. Depatie says.
In 2008 Balme was awarded a fellowship from the Draper Richards Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs. After researching Spark, Draper portfolio director Anne Marie Burgoyne became convinced that not only did the program have value, but that Balme had the skills and commitment to make it work – and grow.
"Chris was stellar on many levels, ruthless in focus, and with a strong sense of mission," Ms. Burgoyne says.
Balme's demeanor is both button-down proper and disarmingly open. He talks with emotion about the generosity he encountered in his own life as a child, when a family friend took in him, his sister, and his mother after his parents split up and the family was in dire financial straits.
It's early to judge Spark's success, but so far 98 percent of its apprentices have gone on to college or are on track to go.
The experience for the volunteer mentors is often life-changing, too.
Spark "gave me a new purpose, something that I really care about," says Erik Newton, a San Francisco attorney who worked with a seventh-grade girl from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Back at the Horace Mann orientation, a shy and somewhat withdrawn student, Marchel Smith, found her confidence grow as the night wore on. As part of a Spark exercise, she was asked what superpower she most wished she had. "Walking through walls," she answered.
That's exactly what she may be about to do, courtesy of Chris Balme and Spark.