And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

 On Monday, I arrived at The SPARK Center to find a letter on my desk from one of our preschoolers.

Samantha,

Good-bye….I love you forever! Thank you for all of your help.

Love, Evan

This is a kid who has been through more trauma in his five little years than I hope to in my entire life. A kid I bonded with my first day here last summer, and who became my little buddy within a week; a kid who is likely stronger than me physically and emotionally, and in many instances smarter than me too.

On Tuesday, I spent my morning learning from our music therapist, Kim, about the incredible music she has been writing, producing and performing with the young adults in our TICKET Program. Kim taught us about Song Studio, a program that empowers young people with serious illnesses to envision positive futures, develop strong coping skills and share their experience through music. Music provides a culturally relevant, youth oriented, technique for young people to channel their emotions and cope with hardship. 

On Wednesday, I volunteered with the TICKET kids at an organization that provides children from birth through age 12, living in homeless or low-income situations, with the essential items they need to thrive – at home, at school and at play. 

On Thursday, I reluctantly completed my year of national service as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

It is gratifying to reflect back on this year knowing that every single day, even my last four, was meaningful. Every day was a learning experience, and those experiences helped me to grow professionally and more importantly, personally. Last summer, I was a confused recent college graduate, with a very hazy view of what my future would look like. Now, I’m headed towards graduate school for my Masters in Public Health and a new job at Boston University, with a clear-cut plan of what’s to come.

Allow yourself the opportunity to experience something meaningful. How you define that meaning is up to you, but it should allow you to grow and learn, to gain a new perspective and a new outlook. It should shape you in a way that goes beyond the amount of money deposited into your bank account at the end of the week, and beyond any praise or recognition received. 

As I offer you my last spark of inspiration- my advice is to do something that sparks your interests, your energy, your goals and most importantly your happiness. 

Once a SPARKy, always a SPARKy. 

“If it is to be, it is up to me”

Boston City Councilor at large, Ayanna Pressley, made a special visit to The SPARK Center this past Monday.

Councilor Pressley has been involved in Massachusetts and national politics for many years. She was elected to Boston City Council in 2009, and became the first woman of color to serve in the 100-year history of the Boston City Council. Councilor Pressley formed and chairs the Committee on Women and Healthy Communities, a group devoted to stabilizing families and communities, reducing and preventing violence and trauma, and combating poverty. She is an extremely active leader in the non-profit community and serves in many leadership positions throughout the city.

It was a treat for the staff and the children to have Councilor Pressley visit The SPARK Center. With her boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm, she conducted an interactive hour of reading and singing with the kids. Two of our most fragile preschoolers volunteered to stand up next to the councilor, and helped her to lead their friends in a song.

It was inspiring to see these two little girls, both of whom have suffered tremendous trauma before the age of five, stand up next to such an empowering, female leader in our community. It was inspiring to hear Councilor Pressley tell the girls that they could be the future city councilors.

The image of the three of them together was a testament to the strength of the services and interventions offered at The SPARK Center. These children have received medical care, mental health counseling, early intervention and family therapy at SPARK. This model of comprehensive care has given these kids the tools they need to be resilient and overcome their challenges.

Councilor Pressley ended her story hour with an important 10 word lesson. She asked the kids to put their ten little fingers in the air, and count each word as she told them, “if it is to be, it is up to me.” She left them with this important message, and the lesson that no one can get in the way of accomplishing their dreams.

We are so grateful for Councilor Pressley’s visit, and for her ongoing advocacy for access to quality early childhood interventions for our city’s children!

It’s a Family Affair

I’ve taken an unexpected hiatus from updating my blog during this past month for no reason other than a lack of inspiration. Endless snowy days, bitter temperatures, grad school applications, stomach viruses and just life in general got in the way of producing anything worth sharing with you.

But, I found my inspiration last Friday at our Spring Family Celebration. Most of the time that extra support is provided to the families at SPARK is when they are in a time of need or when their child is in crisis. Our teachers send home daily and weekly notes updating parents about their child’s progress. We have just completed our quarterly parent-teacher conferences. Our administrators meet with parents to gather financial and intake information. Our early intervention specialists, clinical psychologists, nurses and DCF workers support parents with transitions to kindergarten, health care needs and mental health issues. We constantly provide comprehensive care to both parent and child. 

But, it is a treat to have parents and caregivers come to The SPARK Center to just celebrate and spend time with their wonderful children.  On Friday, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles gathered at SPARK to participate in an Easter egg hunt, egg dying activity, a special family lunch and an overall celebration of Spring. Several families got involved by bringing food to share with others.

Our Spring Family Celebration is mirrored at least once a season, and it is a unique opportunity for a different type of relationship to grow. Conversations are free from talk of medicine, behavior, development, etc. The families can form personal bonds with other families based on their own interests and their kid’s friendships. They can talk to and relate to other parents who have similar struggles as them. They can laugh about their kids, and connect with people who really get it. These opportunities allow strong peer to peer relationships to grow; relationships that will hopefully empower parents and help them to develop their own network of support.

These kind of interpersonal bonds lead to trust and more involvement from parents in their child’s education. And this involvement is what helps us to strengthen our program and continue to support parents and fragile children.

Our Spring calendar is filled with exciting events and activities and we hope to see more and more parents getting involved! 

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It Takes A Village

At The SPARK Center, we are constantly advocating for a society that meets every need of every child. Like most childcare providers, we are always considering the well being of the children we serve.  While we work to meet the needs of our children, we have looked to our neighbors and the community for support.

The SPARK Center is located on River Street, a two-mile long road that physically connects two communities: Dorchester and Mattapan. Demographically, the two ends of River Street are extremely different. However, both sides share a strong sense of community and a dedication to improving the lives of the citizens that live there.

In just the past few weeks, The SPARK Center has been welcomed with open arms by two great community organizations from both sides of town: Mattapan United and the Lower Mills Merchant Association.

Mattapan United is a multi-year community engagement initiative designed for residents of Mattapan to work towards improving the quality of life, unity and community pride in Mattapan. The members, including concerned citizens and representatives from local organizations, have talked in depth about the strengths and challenges of their community, and have developed action steps for improvement.  The goal of this organization is to help Mattapan transform into a dynamic, desirable place to live, work and visit.

The Lower Mills Merchant Association is an organization that represents, supports and communicates with the business and professional community in the Lower Mills neighborhoods of Dorchester.  The purpose of the association is to provide information to members, address issues and concerns in the neighborhood, contribute to and serve the community through charitable donations, programming and support of local events. The Merchant Association is also designed to create goodwill and opportunity to promote the member businesses to residents and potential customers.

Both organizations are filled with passionate members of their respective communities and representatives from the local government, and all of these members are united in their common goal of improving the quality of their hometowns.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and luckily we’ve got two great villages helping to support the needs of all of the children in our community. If you live in Mattapan or Dorchester, I urge you to get involved in these great organizations. If you live in other parts of the state or the country, I encourage you to take action and get involved in your own hometowns. It’s never too late to become an active member of your local community. 

Please visit the sites below to learn more!

http://mymattapan.org/

http://www.lowermillsmerchants.com/

Link

http://amiebloom.blogspot.com/

Please take the time to read and share this powerful blog written about one of my favorite families. The posts make an example out of their family’s struggle with mental illness and an insufficient mental health care system.  They have shared their story, in hopes that it will bring attention to a serious need, and give other people the courage to share.  The system is broken. We need change, and we need it now. 

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Theodore Roosevelt.

Last week, my older sister Leslie shared with me an article from the New England Journal of Medicine, written by a Pediatric Oncology doctor. My sister is a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Pediatric Oncology. Kids with Cancer.

It sounds terribly sad, and sometimes I don’t know how she does it.

That response is exactly what the article focused on. That awkward moment when you tell someone what you do every day, and their face fills with a mix of dread and compassion. “How can you do it? It must be so hard being you,” they offer.

Well, it would be a lot harder being the kid with cancer. Or, the parent of the kid with cancer.

Luckily, the kids at The SPARK Center are not pediatric oncology patients. However, I’ve found in the past several months that when I tell people I work at a childcare program for high-risk, fragile children struggling with medical, emotional and developmental challenges, I am often asked, “how do you do it?”

First off, in my role as a VISTA to raise funds and capacity for this organization, I’ve conditioned myself to talk about SPARK in ways that will illicit sympathy and compassion from future supporters. However, when you walk through the bright hallways of our building and hear the laughter radiating through the walls, you realize this place is filled with kids who are thriving, growing, and learning because they are receiving the best possible care available.

The SPARK Center is not a sad place. It’s sad stories within a happy place.

There are many days that are emotionally and physically draining for our teachers, administrators and interns. There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on within these walls. But, that heavy stuff is what keeps everyone going.  There’s definitely an acknowledgement that we cannot fix every problem these kids face, or mend every broken family. But it’s a moment when a kid we thought would never walk or talk, starts walking or talking…those little moments of gradual progress…that make a job like this one sustain itself.

In the article Leslie sent me it says, “Suffering is everywhere, and it’s for everyone to acknowledge and share- hospital walls are no barrier to the radiating agonies of sick children or grieving parents. So why is it any worse for me that for anyone else to stand in consideration of the world’s unfairness? Yes, I’m reminded of it daily, but is it really any comfort to forget? Is forgetting even possible? Indeed, I’ve come to believe that it’s psychologically and spiritually damaging for a person not to be forcibly reminded of all the suffering in the world.”

So yes, there are hard days. But no, it’s not hard being me. And I think my sister would agree. And probably most people who work for the benefit of sick kids, in any capacity.

It actually feels like a privilege most days to bring a little extra light to other people’s lives, and to stand in between them and their pain.

Source: “The Question” Chris Adrian, M.D. From the Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2012. Image