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To our incredible Spark Ventures community,

 

It is hard to begin a letter reflecting on 2020 when it feels like 2020 is not quite done with us – the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic still looms over the world as we enter 2021. But as we begin to look for light at the end of the tunnel, the close of the year gives us an important opportunity for reflection. The pandemic has brought innumerable challenges, hardship and loss on a global scale. This is true in our hometown of Chicago, and it’s true in Mexico, Nicaragua and Zambia. And, painfully, those who have been most impacted by COVID are also those who are least equipped to weather the blows.

 

As a small non-profit (or “small and mighty” as we’ve become accustomed to calling our team), the pandemic also brought us a lot of uncertainty. We knew our partner organizations were deeply in need of emergency support so that they could provide for the health and safety of their communities. But, we also knew that our community of supporters were experiencing their own hardships, both financial and personal. Back to what feels like an eternity ago, when we were first considering moving our Wine and Dine event to a virtual format in April, we didn’t know if that might have disastrous implications on our ability to financially support our partners’ needs.

 

Our worry was misplaced – as has been proven time and time again, there is no community that rallies like the Spark Ventures community.

 

The response from our supporters last year was astounding. Despite the hardship 2020 brought, despite not being able to gather in person and fill a room with the enthusiasm and energy of our shared passions, our community made tremendous commitments to ensure our work would not only continue, but could grow. This past year we deepened our commitment to our existing international partners by providing critical emergency support focused on their communities’ health. And, we grew our impact by adding our first local partnership here in Chicago.

 

While our partners continue to battle the pandemic in each of their communities, they are also making important strides forward in their own programming offerings. We are featuring just a few highlights from the year in this report, and we hope that you will take the time to read about what your support has enabled us to do together.

 

We’re all looking forward to a brighter future in 2021, but thanks to the Spark Ventures community, we leave 2020 behind us in an even stronger position to support our four partners across the globe.

 

Thank you for your continued partnership in this work,

2020 Annual Report - Design Content-03

Mike Campbell

Chair, Spark Ventures Board of Directors
2020 Annual Report - Design Content-02

Kristin Schrepferman

Executive Director, Spark Ventures

A New Local Partner Grows our Impact Footprint

 

I GROW CHICAGO  //  USA

 

Spark Ventures’ core mission of building partnerships that lift communities out of poverty knows no borders. Spark Ventures was founded 13 years ago after a trip half-way around the world inspired the idea to partner with grassroots organizations to provide healthcare, education and jobs – all with a focus on sustainability. We’ve been deeply aware that there are underserved communities with great needs in our own home city of Chicago, and it has long been a goal to expand our impact to include a local partner.

Spark Ventures has a history of supporting organizations with inspirational leaders who identify local needs and build rapport and respect as they tirelessly invest in making change from the ground-up.

 

I Grow Chicago’s story is incredibly well aligned with our focus on grassroots mobilization and local leadership. Founded in 2013 at the corner of 64th and Honore, in Chicago’s south side neighborhood of Englewood, I Grow Chicago is the story of people coming together and working for change. It’s a history of violence and trauma but also one of hope, resiliency and most of all, love.

 

Last year showed the deep importance of the bonds I Grow Chicago has established in their community over the years.

INTRODUCING I GROW CHICAGO

Spark Ventures provides funding to support I Grow Chicago’s “Born to Thrive” program. This program provided in-person and virtual educational support for remote learning while schools were closed. In 2021, the program will continue to support the neighborhood’s most vulnerable children and teens by supplying them with technology and internet access, school supplies, social-emotional support, peer-to-peer activities, meals & snacks, transportation, and advocacy.

Students in Englewood have a disproportionate number of barriers to succeeding in a distance learning setting, but I Grow Chicago has built a program that chips away at these barriers. As one participating student put it: “I like I Grow because I Grow is like the type of place where you can actually get help.” In 2020, the Born to Thrive Program supported 41 students, provided 720 hours of remote tutoring, and handed out 31 computers to students who would otherwise struggle to access distance learning.

41

students

720

hours of remote tutoring

31

computers for students in need

Spark Ventures has jumped in to support I Grow Chicago as they help vulnerable students bridge educational gaps, an obviously critical challenge last year and beyond. However, we are also looking forward to a future of collaboration that focuses on sustainable initiatives to augment and amplify the work they are already doing to empower the community of Englewood.

Building Financial Sustainability in Zambia

 

HOPE COMMUNITY SCHOOL  //  ZAMBIA

 

“I’m proud of my success and I feel empowered.” That’s how Idah described the impact of the new Village Banking program at Hope Community School.

 

Idah was one of the first students to enroll at Hope Community School, back when it first opened – she attended from 2006 to 2012. She graduated from 7th grade and with scholarship support from Hope & Spark Ventures, went on to successfully complete 8th and 9th grade in secondary school. Unfortunately, Idah’s education ended after 9th grade when she was forced into an early marriage that was abusive and short-lived.

Left struggling on her own with three children to support, she was an excellent candidate for Hope’s new Village Banking program. The program is educating and empowering members of the community to understand and attain financial security through business and budgeting training. Participants receive goods to sell at local markets, for example: vegetables from Hope’s farm or supplies to make crafts. Part of their sales go to pay back Hope for the goods they received, which in turn is used to compensate the record keepers, purchase more craft supplies, or invest back into the farm. Participants in the initiative are encouraged to save a small percentage of their profit in the village bank to have as an emergency safety net. They use the remaining funds to support their families.

 

For Idah, this opportunity has been transformative.

 

Thanks to the leg-up provided by the Village Banking program she has been able to secure a permanent vendor spot at the Twapia market. She has amassed enough profits to purchase vegetables from other farmers as well – diversifying what she can sell in her stall.

HEAR FROM IDAH FIRST HAND

Idah’s business success has allowed her to build financial sustainability for her family – she can now support their needs and is renting a 2-room house in Twapia where she lives with her 3 children. Her eldest child is enrolled at Hope Community School. Idah is not done yet – her goal is to continue working hard, and with the support of the Village Banking program, she’d like to open her own restaurant someday.

Idah stands proud in front of Hope Community School where she studied, and where her eldest child now attends.

A Village Banking meeting where Idah receives loans, makes repayments, and participates in other capacity building training.

Idah’s regular spot at the local Twapia marketplace. There she sells vegetable from the Hope Farm and other vendors.

Like all our partners, Hope Community School also dedicated significant time and resources last year towards keeping their community safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. They have provided supplies (like food, masks and disinfectants) and educational resources to the families they support. Their campus was closed for in-person learning for much of the year so teachers gave homework packets to each student. The students returned their homework and received feedback from the previous day’s work when they came to pick up their daily meal. The meal program itself continued without interruption and the seventh grade was able to attend in person classes following social distancing guidelines so they could maintain their progress towards their end-of-year national exams.

Maintaining Community at Entreamigos

 

ENTREAMIGOS  //  MEXICO

 

The vibrant Entreamigos community center is usually bustling with activity. However, the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on the constant ebb and flow of visitors and beneficiaries.

The Entreamigos team took it upon themselves to ensure the community stayed connected – serving as a hub for everyone to come together in COVID-safe ways to support each other.

 

Among many other efforts, they distributed 1,701 masks, 5,178 packages of food, and 513 children’s art activities to their beneficiary families.

1701

masks

5178

packages of food

513

children’s art activities

One of their biggest concerns when the community center closed was how they were going to maintain the spirit of “togetherness” that is so core to the Entreamigos identity, and a powerful motivator to the families they serve. In the Jungle Group program that Spark Ventures supports, they looked to nature for some inspiration.

 

A local marine biologist who has collaborated with Entreamigos on environmental education initiatives for the past 14 years and runs “Birding San Pancho” created an interactive virtual learning experience for the students – which they named “Observing Birds Improves My Health.” While they were unable to gather for their regular programming at the center, the Jungle Group students and other student beneficiaries at Entreamigos were encouraged to go on nature walks and complete drawing and writing assignments as they learned about the different birds that live in the jungle around them. Once completed, they received their own bird watching kit, including a t-shirt, hat, bandana, guide book on local flora and fauna, a pocket bird guide of the region and a pair of professional binoculars!

 

The experience provided an excellent outlet for these young students to build appreciation for the environment around them and stay engaged, active and supported by Entreamigos.

Entreamigos was also able to keep their gallery and recycled goods shop open throughout the pandemic. As Sarah Kamenshine, director of Entreamigos put it on our recent virtual visit: “We live in a community that depends heavily on tourism, so the inability to travel and gather has really impacted a lot of the service industry, tours, and all sorts of things, leaving a lot of people without jobs.” Keeping the Entreamigos shops open has meant that the women in the entrepreneurship program could still sell their crafts and count on supplemental income – a critical resource as other income sources have been much harder to come by last year.

Las Tías Models Resilience

 

LAS TÍAS  //  NICARAGUA

 

The one-two punch of the pandemic has had frightening health implications and has crippled the economy in León, Nicaragua. But, the leadership at Las Tías has demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of these dual hardships and has served as a beacon of hope and high quality resources for the vulnerable families they serve.

The Nicaraguan government took longer than any other government in the region to acknowledge the severity of the health crisis and to offer resources or public guidance. It was left to community leaders to educate their constituents about the virus and what preventative measures they could take to protect themselves. Even though the Tías are in their 70’s and are at high risk, they took this task on with enthusiasm – passing out over 400 fliers with information from the World Health Organization, and 900 packages of food along with protective items such as masks and cleaning supplies. While their community centers were closed, they continued to provide nutritional programming by offering hot meals for the students to pick up each day or by sending home packages of provisions to be prepared at home. Their social worker tracked down families who weren’t showing up regularly to retrieve food to check in on them – ensuring that each of the students Las Tías serves would have a healthy meal each day.

 

The economic impact of the pandemic shutdowns hit the community hard. For Las Tías, this also meant that a number of their funders reduced or put an end to their regular donations, significantly impacting their budget and ability to meet the cost of daily operations. Thanks to generous support from the Spark Ventures community, we were able to fill financial gaps that arose in the past year, keeping numerous dedicated educators at Las Tías working to serve their community, and ensuring that critical programming continued uninterrupted. And, though 2020 may feel exclusively like the-year-of-COVID, Las Tías and Spark Ventures were able to focus on programs that will seed positive change for years to come, including the new literacy & vocational skills workshop that is serving mothers of Las Tías beneficiaries!

As the Tías have reminded the Spark Ventures team on our regular check-in calls, they survived the Sandinista revolution in the 80’s, political & social unrest over the years, and extreme economic hardship. They are determined to help their community survive the impact of the pandemic – as long as there’s a need, the Tías will keep on serving.

Successfully Staying Connected

 

ZAMBIA  //  NICARAGUA  //  MEXICO  //  CHICAGO  //  AND BEYOND

 

No one needed another Zoom call in 2020, but the Spark Ventures community’s desire for connection even surpassed Zoom fatigue.

 

While it feels even more obvious after a year spent socially distancing, we know social connections are key to well-being and happiness. The Spark community is built on connections – across cities, states, and countries around the world. The powerful connections Spark has made over the years have transformed hundreds of lives for the better. And, the same connections have kept us strong in the face of all 2020 has wrought.

 

The majority of Spark Ventures’ fundraising has historically taken place at our two, in-person, signature annual events. The energy and enthusiasm we feel when we gather our supporters in one room is electrifying. Having never done a “virtual” event before, we didn’t know what to expect when that became the only option for last year’s gatherings – would our supporters’ passion and dedication be felt on Zoom? Would the stories of impact resonate as loudly in a virtual setting?

Our two virtual events last year proved to us that we don’t need to be physically together to know that we can have a powerful impact together.

 

And there were silver linings to the virtual format. In the past, we were only able to invite representatives from one international partner to speak at an event each year. But, in 2020, we were able to “zoom” into each of our partner organizations around the world to hear first-hand the impact of our joint efforts. Our community showed up with as much digital enthusiasm as can be conveyed across hundreds of small Zoom screens! And, the Spark Ventures community’s generosity continues to be unparalleled. Thanks to our supporters’ dedication, we are entering 2021 in a better financial position that we had anticipated, even before COVID hit.

Events aren’t our only source of connection at Spark Ventures – our trips that bring supporters to engage first-hand with our partner organizations have also played a huge role in building connections across our community. But with ever open minds, our community has embraced an initial round of virtual trips and came up with other creative digital engagement opportunities.

Another silver lining of the pandemic has been the opportunity to provide Hope Community School with a more robust technology set-up, an initiative spearheaded by two of our Kansas City Spark Ventures Travel Alumni, Carol Barnett and Board Member, Sue Bernstein. 2020 had even more in store for Carol than the rest of us as in May she underwent a heart transplant. Facing the prospect of not being able to travel back to Zambia anytime soon, she and Sue connected with Teacher Ngoma, Head Teacher at Hope Community School to discuss what they might be able to do virtually to help support the students, specifically the seventh graders. Despite last year’s disruptions, they still had to take their national examinations at the end of December to determine eligibility for secondary school. And thus, “Math with Teacher Carol” was born.

What began on a few laptops with a few students has evolved into a fully equipped computer room and library each with a laptop, projector, wide screen camera, speakers and a microphone for the teachers and students to use.

 

Teacher Carol says: “Working with the students each week was definitely one of the biggest highlights of 2020. How humbling to provide additional support to their regular math curriculum. They were so excited and receptive to this new format – not only did we see real improvements in their skills and ability to solve problems, we were all laughing and having fun while doing so. I can hardly wait for the 2021 school year to get underway.” With the success of the virtual tutoring sessions, Hope School has expressed interest in expanding the program. We look forward to more opportunities to collaborate virtually with Hope even well after the pandemic is in our rear view mirrors. If you are interested in learning more about this initiative, please reach out to Spark Ventures Board Member, Sue Bernstein here.

FY20 Board Member Listing

 

For the time period: July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020
Patti O’Neil | Chair
Treasurer and Assistant Professor,
Rush University Medical Center
Michael Campbell | Vice Chair

CEO, Fusion Risk Management

Doak Elliott | Treasurer

Director of Internal Audit, US Foods

 

Kathy Campbell Wolf | Secretary

Community Volunteer

 

Scott Barbeau
Cofounder, Spark Ventures
Professional Musician
Constance Benrud

Community Volunteer

 

Sue Bernstein

Community Volunteer

 

Julie Cook

Practice Leader, Netsmart

Rich Johnson

Founder & Co-CEO, Ignite
Cofounder, Spark Ventures

Jennifer Kim

Community Volunteer

 

Julie Tafel Klaus

Community Volunteer

 

Lisa Madonia

Senior Broker & Founding Member, @ Properties

 

Dan Marcus

Investment Advisor, Marcus Capital, LLC

 

Kristin Schrepferman

Executive Director,
Spark Ventures

Vicki Kraft

Business Consultant

Joined Spark Ventures Board in FY21

Leadership Team

Kristin Schrepferman

Executive Director

Gwyn Thomas
Marketing & Events Manager
Michelle Morin
Finance & CRM Manager
Stephanie Denzer
Strategic Communications Consultant

Spark Ventures and all our partner organizations send our sincere thanks to the 378 supporters who stood alongside us in 2020. We are truly better together.

FY19 Revenue & Other Support – $757,624

  • SOURCES

  • individuals

  • events

  • in-kind

  • corporate and foundations

Jump start your 2021 impact with Spark Ventures by making a contribution today!

 

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