Out & About: Special needs nonprofit getting back in rhythm after pandemic with karaoke night

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    Spark! co-founder John Fenley, of Lebanon, N.H., left, reacts to the singing of Nikki Gilmore and Trevor McCormick, both of Enfield, N.H., singing "Achy Breaky Heart" during their karaoke night on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Lebanon, N.H. The community center for those with disabilities is returning to in-person activities. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • John Chase, of Enfield, N.H. sings his second song of the night at Spark! in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, May 13, 2022. The center is returning to in-person activities. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Shantal Coles, of Charlestown, N.H., sings a Taylor Swift song at Spark! for karaoke night in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2022 1:11:27 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 1:11:08 AM

John Fenley surveyed the group sitting around tables at Spark! Community Center on a Friday evening in downtown Lebanon.

“I was wondering if anyone had a song they’d like to sing,” Fenley, of Lebanon, began.

John Chase stood up to request Circle of Life from the Lion King, kicking off the karaoke for Friday Fun Night.

The popular events restarted last fall after being sidelined by COVID-19, which in some ways has provided a rebirth to Spark!, a nonprofit that aims to give people with special needs a place to gather.

The pandemic saw both a change in approach and a change in scenery for the organization. Its doors closed during lockdown, and in 2020, it moved from the first floor of the old Lebanon Junior High School on Bank Street to a storefront on Hanover Street. Melissa Valcourt, who took over as executive director in February 2020, said her first jobs were to oversee a move to the new space and to lay off the center’s employees.

The Hanover Street location is smaller and does not have a kitchen, which can limit the type of programs Spark! can host. But Valcourt and Fenley, who co-founded Spark! in 2014 and serves as its community outreach director, see it as an opportunity to partner with other nonprofit organizations like the nearby Carter Community Building Association and Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction.

One of the staples of Spark! has been its Friday Fun Nights. Each Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. people gather for activities like karaoke, a movie or bingo. On May 13, the 10 participants assembled sang songs from Disney, country, classic rock and pop.

Chase, of Enfield, was the first performer. Fenley used his computer, YouTube and a projector to show lyrics on the screen. Speakers blasted the music. At each chorus, everyone in the room joined in. When Chase forgot the lyrics, Fenley backed him up.

Next, Valcourt’s daughter Shantal Coles chose You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift, an uptempo pop song.

Coles is one of the reasons Valcourt took the part-time executive director job at Spark! As a young mother, she struggled with social options for Coles, who’s now 27. She has a job and volunteers, but there are few places where she can go to socialize with friends, especially since she aged out of the school system.

When the job at Spark! opened up, Valcourt thought it would be the perfect fit for her to help her daughter and others in the same situation.

“I felt like I get it,” Valcourt said in an interview earlier this month, along with board treasurer Phil Eller. Spark! is a safe place for people with special needs to be around others who understand them. “For me, my biggest concern is making sure that social network is available.”

Spark! is primarily funded by grants and donations. There is no charge for their programs or services. All four staff members work part-time. Spark! is currently open from noon to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Friday Fun Night takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. but is sometimes held at other locations. Valcourt hopes to increase their hours — as well as Spark!’s open hours, if the nonprofit can secure more funding.

Volunteers are slowly coming back to the center and Valcourt is looking for people who are willing to teach a class or share a skill with participants.

It’s something participants and their caregivers would welcome. Angela Wright, of Lebanon, started working with Chase last June. Wright was laid off from a Lebanon convenience store at the start of the pandemic and decided to apply for a job last spring at Pathways, an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities, because it’s work she’s always wanted to do.

“Spark! is great,” Wright said. She and Chase attend programs at Spark! multiple times a week, including most Friday Fun Nights. When Spark! reopened to in-person activities last fall, it gave Chase more opportunities to meet with his friends. “I love just watching how they interact with each other.”

That’s what Trevor McCormick, of Enfield, likes best.

“I love it,” he said after singing Keep Your Hands to Yourself by The Georgia Satellites. “I get to hang out with my friends.”

Later, when Nikki Gilmore, of Enfield, hesitated about singing alone, McCormick jumped in.

“Nikki, how about you sing with me?” he asked and she agreed to a duet of AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long.

Over the course of the two hours he served as emcee, Fenley injected bits of inspirational-poster wisdom into the conversation.

“That’s what we’re about here,” he said before a group singalong of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

“We’re all a family here,” he said after everyone sang We Are Family by Sister Sledge.

The nonprofit’s mantra of “Everyone has a Spark!” was exclaimed throughout the night.

“I like to see my friends and we always do something fun,” said Michael Stodley, of Lebanon.

The last song was a collective choice. Everyone sang along to Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary. The chorus was a favorite and all the participants belted it out until the very last chord.

That togetherness is indicative of the community that has grown at Spark!

“What’s surprised me the most is it really became a family,” Fenley said about the eight years since Spark! was founded. “We look out for each other here.”

Editor’s note: For more information about Spark!, visit sparkcommunitycenter.org. People interested in volunteering can email Valcourt at director@sparkcommunitycenter.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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