Volunteering & Giving
April 2, 2015

What the right ‘spark’ in middle school can ignite

Some California eighth-graders are working with a nonprofit and business community mentors to reinforce the link between classroom and career.

Angel G. loves reading comic books. The Los Angeles eighth-grader recently learned how he might turn that passion into a career, with help from an apprenticeship program, Spark, and its volunteers.

Angel, along with mentors Edward Newton, Brett Bondi, and Lindsay Nelson from Wells Fargo’s Santa Monica office, came up with the idea of a social media community for comic book lovers. Ten weeks of research resulted in a presentation to Angel’s friends, peers, and 250 other Spark students at Dodger Stadium in December 2014.

The project taught an important lesson, says Edward: Enjoy what you do for work so you can put your heart into it and find the motivation to succeed.

Wells Fargo’s Edward Newton with Spark student Angel
Wells Fargo’s Edward Newton with Spark student Angel

Spark apprenticeships aim to give students the confidence to succeed in school and beyond. In the 2014–15 school year, it worked with 900 students like Angel in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia areas.

“When you see that light bulb go on, and the confidence level go up, there is nothing more rewarding than that,” says Edward, who has three middle school-age children of his own.

Since 2004, Spark volunteers from companies, organizations, and universities across the U.S. have helped 92 percent of Spark students graduate from high school on time. That rate is far above the national average, says Jane Walsh, Spark’s managing director of development and partnerships.

“Everyone at Spark would agree that corporations, businesses, and their professional employees really are the heart and soul of our programs,” says Jane. “We can’t achieve our mission without volunteers.”

Link between classroom and career

Volunteers work in tandem with an in-school elective curriculum organized by Spark at its 30 partner schools, to reinforce the link between the classroom and a career. Students work on a presentation and often gain on-the-job training in a profession such as cooking, painting, or graphic design.

Volunteer Troy Erickson organized a Wells Fargo group of 20 volunteers last fall. Their teams all created presentations about a potential career path or other career-related topic.

Among them was a presentation by Xitlally S. about becoming a pediatrician, created with Wells Fargo volunteers Yolanda Jasso and Lillian Ponce De Leon. Yolanda, a graphic designer for Wells Fargo, joined the program because she was inspired by the mentorship she had received in college. “Having someone sit with you and focus really makes a difference,” says Yolanda.

“Xitlally’s eyes just lit up when she saw the completed presentation on display. It was really exciting to see.”

Many of the students returned to the Wells Fargo office in February to begin another career-related project, building on their previous work.

“The reality is that when you are in eighth grade you have no idea what you want to be,” says Troy. “Even if Xitlally doesn’t end up being a pediatrician, she has been exposed to different work environments through Spark to help her find her way.”