The University of West Georgia (UWG) has always prided itself in providing top support and guidance to the community in efforts of creating a successful and healthy environment.

 One of their endeavors includes the SPARK program, a therapeutic mentoring program where parents of at-risk teens looking for an alternative to traditional behavior modification can turn to.

The catalyst that began this program was Dr. Thomas Peterson, a professor in UWG’s College of Education. 

His work with the Carroll and Coweta County Juvenile court systems inspired him to create such a program that focused on a more tactful approach to children’s behavior.  

“Our mission literally is just to inspire hope. That’s it,” Peterson said.“We are not there to change their behavior like a lot of programs that focus on external behavior. [Their thought processes] change from the inside out, instead of outside in. We see our youth as sacred.” 

“The program consists of playing and ice breakers. Everything from apples to oranges to trust walks by the coliseum. We have fun because people are coming from very challenging issues and they don’t want to be just talked to or talked at,” said Michael Frazier, co-director of SPARK at UWG. 

The SPARK program is specifically designed to help kids open up. They are encouraged to express their feelings and thoughts in positive and productive ways. 

One activity that has become a huge hit is called “cosmos,” where kids get to know each other better by sharing their life stories with one another and with the staff. 

Josh Dixon, who is a 2016 graduate of UWG, leads the musical component of the SPARK program. He has managed to re-ignite the creativity in so many teens with his own personal love and interest for the musical arts.

“Music is a universal language,” Dixon said. “Music is something that a lot of people like and when you like something, it becomes easier to accept it. This is the biggest part of the SPARK  program, it’s high demand so they keep calling.”

This became his reasoning for joining as well as so many kids that gravitated towards a more creative outlet to express themselves. 

“They share their stories and talk about their families, it’s really a dope program. It was created at the University of West Georgia, however,  it’s a program that is offered all across the United States. SPARK Mentoring welcomes youth from troubled households, the Foster care system and broken family homes. Most of the time it’s not just minorities that participate, it’s for any kid in a tough situation, it’s a program for them,” Dixon said. 

SPARK has adjusted the program during COVID-19 by altering the class sizes and amount of people involved. 

Pre-pandemic, SPARK student classes were larger in size, they have reduced the class sizes to allow kids to still be able to come. Preventative measures such as social distancing and wearing masks are practiced while doing activities. 

“For my part of the program with doing music, I’ve adjusted by having one student record at a time. With groups of no more than 5-7 with everyone masked up,” Dixon said.  

“I originally became a part of the program when we were given a project to complete in a class, we had to create an activity we wanted to do with the kids. I’ve been doing music since high school so my program was that I wanted to bring my music around the kids. I brought my studio equipment to the class and they absolutely loved it. The next semester I graduated and I was the first person they called when the next group of kids came. They gave me a contract and I’ve been back ever since.” 

Often times, many at-risk teens aren’t as receptive to behavioral programs or find it hard to stay and complete such programs. SPARK’s effectiveness has changed that narrative for so many teens by cultivating an enjoyable and fun-packed experience.

Dixon continues, “When I get there the kids immediately have a blast. I think this is something that needs to be implemented into all school levels including elementary, middle and high school. Music is universal. Anyone can feel it and that’s a major part of the reason why when I come, the kids get excited and refreshed. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been doing music for a while. It’s very inspiring seeing kids be kids. Their smiles, rapping and singing is so cool to me.” 

“My part of the program is different because of the fact that it does include music. It allows kids from all backgrounds. Lately, there has been a lot of entities targeted towards one specific group, for instance, Black Lives Matter or Stop Asian American Hate. What’s unique about this is that it isn’t targeted towards one specific group of kids, inclusion is highly stressed and practiced. This changes the kids’ perspective. We need to guide our youth because they are the next step towards tomorrow. Everything we do is from the heart and the kids appreciate that, they feel that energy.”

Making sure that every teen feels heard is a critical aspect of the program. “We actually take the time to get to know each kid. It’s not a bunch of people in your face. If I see a shy kid, I’ll approach them one-on-one. It shows them that you care and that you think about what they think about. If you show them you appreciate them, they’ll open up to you and reciprocate.” 

Dixon continues, “Sometimes it takes a long time for them to open up since some come from battered households. I remember once there was this one kid, I spotted him shaking his head to the beat that was playing so I went over to him and started rapping. He started mumbling words and just kept going. I was just hyping him up until I finally got him to open up, it really makes a difference for real.” 

SPARK’s objective is simple, helping kids navigate life and produce positive outcomes, and this has unequivocally created some of the most inspiring results for its youth participants. 

“Many teens have gotten themselves together and have gone on to complete high school or actually attend UWG. One of the female participants is about to graduate from UWG on a scholarship with a biology degree, coming from a single mom household who ended up in foster care. The good thing is that we’re helping somebody make a change. That’s my goal, to make a change whether it be big or small,” Dixon said.  

Photo courtesy of the SPARK Mentoring program

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