Jim Kenyon: Sparking Interest

Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Trevor McCormack bags groceries at the Price Chopper supermarket in West Lebanon. When he’s not working, he likes to go with his caregiver to swim at the aquatic center in Hartford or check out the motorcycles at the Harley-Davidson dealership in Lebanon.

A little less than a year ago, the 28-year-old McCormack, who is developmentally disabled, found a new place to spend leisure time. He’s become a regular at Spark, a nonprofit organization that operates out of the basement of the former Lebanon Junior High School on Bank Street.

On Monday afternoon, he played air hockey and took a weekly arts and crafts class that Spark offers for free — like all of its programs.

I asked McCormack why he came to Spark. To play board games with the Dartmouth students who volunteer at the center? The opportunity to take a painting class? The Friday dinners, which this week, along with corned beef and cabbage, will feature a live bird show by VINS, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science?

McCormack, who lives in Orford with his parents, seemed to like all of the activities that I mentioned. But when it came down to it, what he enjoyed most about Spark was that it’s a place where he can just “be with friends.”

When I brought up her son’s response, Liz McCormack knew immediately what drew her son to Spark. “It’s Trevor’s place,” she told me. “It’s somewhere he can have some independence.”

Liz and Brad McCormack have daytime jobs, so without Spark, she said, their son would “probably be at home alone more, and not doing much.”

Spark was started by Lisa Green, who has a 23-year-old autistic son, and John Fenley, a disability rights advocate. I wrote about Fenley a while back when he worked in the stock room at Omer & Bob’s sportshop in Lebanon. Fenley, who is in his late 20s and lives on his own, was left legally blind by a brain tumor that took four surgeries to eradicate when he was a child.

When Fenley and Green were getting Spark started, they wrote, “Everyone has a hidden talent or gift worth sharing with the world, a ‘spark.’ But too often that spark is overlooked in people with disabilities, many of whom live isolated lives at home with few affordable and accessible opportunities in the Upper Valley.”

Spark took its cue from Zack’s Place, a nonprofit enrichment center for people with special needs that opened in 2006. The need for centers such as Zack’s Place and Spark is becoming more and more apparent.

An estimated 4 million Americans have an intellectual or development disability, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They can remain in public school until their early 20s, but what happens after they “age out ”?

That’s the challenge facing many families. In recent years, strides have been made in finding jobs and activities for developmentally disabled adults in the Upper Valley, said Brett Mayfield, Spark’s executive director. But there’s still a public concern that some of the developmentally disabled are “wandering the streets with nothing to do,” he said.

That’s where Spark comes in. It gets 25-30 visitors a day, ranging from teenagers to its oldest regular, who is 87. Spark sees visitors from as far away as Bellows Falls, Vt., and Fairlee, but many of the regulars are from Lebanon and nearby communities that have Advance Transit bus service.

“We have people who are (developmentally) on the fringe, but socially they don’t function well because of a disorder,” Mayfield said. “This is a safe, comfortable place to go.”

On Friday nights in particular, Spark takes on the feel of a community center. Billed as family night, the dinner and movie attracts crowds of 75 or more. (Instead of a movie, this Friday will feature raptors from VINS from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)

Spark remains a “work in progress,” said Jamielynn Garland, the organization’s part-time activities director. What was once the former junior high’s woodworking shop has been converted into a spacious activities room with a half-dozen computers, a pool table and a large TV. A kitchen will be up and running soon for cooking classes and in-house meals. (Currently, the food for the Friday night dinners is brought in by volunteers.)

I think there’s little doubt that Spark is filling a community need. With an operating budget of $165,000 this year, Spark relies on local grants and fundraisers — a softball tournament raised $1,000 last year — to stay afloat. But competing against bigger, more established nonprofit organizations isn’t easy.

In December, Lebanon City Councilors Karen Liot Hill and Steve Wood suggested the city give Spark and four other nonprofit organizations $1,000 each. “I thought it was reasonable to offer a relatively small amount to recognize the hard work they are doing for people in our community,” Liot Hill said.

But City Manager Greg Lewis and five of the council’s nine members were opposed to expanding the list of nonprofit organizations receiving taxpayer support.

On Monday, Lewis told me that he had visited Spark and considers it a worthwhile cause.

He prefers, however, that private money, not tax dollars, go into organizations such as Spark. (The Hanover Selectboard also denied Spark’s request for a $1,000 taxpayer contribution.)

That’s too bad. Sometimes a spark needs be fanned into a flame.