Richmond non-profit organization SPARC uses art, music, and performance to help local youth, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, grow into creative, successful adults.
Every child is different. They have different backgrounds, different family situations, and a different story to tell the world, good or bad. Some are in need of a safe space that school cannot provide for them. This is where Richmond-based organization SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community) makes its mark.
SPARC is a non-profit organization that helps children express their emotions and life challenges in a healthy environment through art programs. What makes SPARC perfect for a city like Richmond is that it gives children an outlet to express their emotions and creativity through art programs, allowing those children the opportunity to grow and add to the artistic community that makes Richmond the creative city it is.
“We really define our purpose as social and emotional learning through the arts,” said Ryan Ripperton, the Executive Director of SPARC. The difficult aspects of being a teenager — overwhelming emotions, not knowing how to explain the things you’re feeling, that persistent fear that no one understands — are what makes SPARC programs so important to these kids. SPARC successfully creates an environment that shows kids and teenagers how to express themselves and handle their emotions through the arts.
SPARC offers multiple opportunities for students to get involved, no matter their age or level in school. The “Stages” program, which works with the youngest students, offers kids the opportunity to enhance their language skills — to speak with confidence, pride, and clarity.
“We send teachers into Richmond City schools, typically in the 2nd or 3rd grade, where we meet with those classes all year long,” says Brendan Kennedy, SPARC’s Program Director and “Captain of Curiosity.” “The idea of this program is to get into schools, again, that don’t typically have access to after-school activities.” With the help of these classes, SPARC says on their website, “program assessments show the average student improves oral language standards of learning by more than 44% within a single school year.”
While “Stages” is geared toward a younger audience, “New Voices” is an intensive two-week program focused on high school students who want to try their hands at playwriting and having their plays performed.
“It is harnessing new playwrights’ plays and giving them an opportunity to work with a professional playwright and director to then see their work go from just their idea to an [actual] production,” Kennedy says. The students in the New Voices program live in VCU dorms during the two-week program, submitting their pieces and shepherding them through an in-depth process of read-throughs, rewrites, and performances.
“For those two weeks, they are living and breathing their play, and playwriting in general,” says Kennedy. “A play’s whole purpose is to be read in front of an audience, to perform in front of an audience … They get both sides of it… the revision and editing with professional playwrights and their peers, who are also working on their artwork.”
One of the most inclusive programs offered by Sparc is the “Spectrum” program. This program is offered to LGBTQ students to give them a safe and welcoming space to express their life experiences.
“[Spectrum] is completely focused on the LGBTQ student identity, and allies…of LGBTQ youth,” Ripperton explains. “[It] is all about the exploration and creation of identity and story and the acceptance of young people.” With the help of trained teachers, participation in different kinds of classes and exercises help students learn how to express and work through their life’s challenges in a creative and safe space.
To help protect their students, Ripperton says, SPARC follows a nationwide program created for Spectrum. “It’s all about creating that sense of belonging,” he says. “It’s advanced by a like group, like the Pride Youth Theater Alliance.”
Giving these kids a sense of safety and acceptance to express themselves is crucial to this program. Some of them endure bullying, family members not accepting them, or worse. Having the opportunity to participate in Spectrum provides helps make up for the love that they might lack in other parts of their lives.
“Talking about yourself, or talking about observations about the world, through an LGBTQ lens –for teenagers, that can be very vulnerable,” Ripperton explains. “So…we have recognized that everybody is going to have valuable things to say, and we’re going to honor all of it.” This way, SPARC helps to show these kids that they are talented, and that they can live in a world that will accept them for who they are.
Even though at this time, SPARC’s programs are mainly available in Richmond and Henrico, children in neighborhoods all over the state can benefit from these programs, which have strong potential to expand outside of these two areas. In fact, SPARC’s activities could be available to children elsewhere in the state as soon as this summer.
“We are very much in Richmond and Henrico primarily right now,” Ripperton says. “We’re planning on announcing a couple of weeks of summer programing that’s gonna be taking place down in Brandermill … and we have definitely been hearing the cry, especially from Chesterfield, so… we are definitely interested in growing.”
The expansion of SPARC to these new areas will open doors to a new generation of SPARC student, reaching students who don’t currently have access to the transportation needed to bring them to SPARC’s current facilities. SPARC also offers scholarships and reduced prices, so families from lower-income areas can afford them, and their kids can take advantage of an opportunity to grow and develop into the best they can be.
While their students may not stick with music or art in the long term, the skills taught by SPARC are skills kids will take with them throughout life. “You know, when I talk to a SPARC alum who is now a teacher — or is a community leader, or a politician, or a doctor, or whatever their chosen career — they’re not saying… I’m so glad that you taught me how to sing an F sharp correctly,” Ripperton says. “What they say is, ‘I’m really glad that you taught me to be confident and comfortable with who I am, how to talk in front of people… and how to be… organized and have compassion and empathy for other people.”
Ripperton points out that the skills kids learn with SPARC stick with them regardless of the path they end up taking. “No matter whether a person decides to pursue the arts as a career or not,” he says, “the difference we feel like we make in the community is around the social emotional learning for young people, that’s going to benefit them forever.” SPARC is not just teaching kids to act; they’re building character and giving kids the tools they need to succeed in life.
Regardless of income, social class, or what side of the city someone comes from, they are welcomed at SPARC. “It crosses boundaries,” Ripperton explains. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s an affluent family in the West End [that] is signing up for a class, or if it’s work we’re doing in schools [in the] South Side… No matter what it is, these are skills that every single young person needs. We can use the arts as a tool to help teach it.”
SPARC is determined to give every child in the Richmond and Henrico area the opportunity to bring their creativity to life and express themselves in a safe environment. SPARC helps kids take the emotions they are feeling and process them through expression. They might not realize it at the time, but these lessons provide kids with tools that help them deal with life’s challenges.
“The tie that binds them all together is the idea that the arts can do more than teach you how to be a good artist,” says Ripperton. “That’s our reason for being here.”
Top Photo: Katrina Boone, Gianna Grace Photography, via SPARC/Facebook