SPARK Mentoring: Co-creating sacred relationships with youth



Strand #1

Family & Community

Strand #2

Social & Emotional Skills


Highlighting practical takeaways for attendees on how to connect with youth identified as high-risk through mentoring from a youth’s perspective, this workshop will also showcase the conference “Heart” thread. For each mentoring session, SPARK youth learn to be courageous simply by being a part of the program. The word courage is derived from the Latin word cor, which means heart. When the youth participate in SPARK activities, they learn to live through their hearts, or be courageous, simply by attending and or participating with other youth and university students in various activities (Ex: icebreakers, West African drumming, improvisation, art, etc.) The primary activity that helps to facilitate this heart work is the COSMOS. Throughout this workshop, presenters will discuss the main activities that helped to foster trust, courage, vulnerability, hope, and connection throughout the mentoring program. Many of the youth admit that they did not want to initially participate in the mentoring program because they assumed that it would be another traditional behavior modification program designed to change their behavior. Presenters will highlight how SPARK utilizes a humanistic approach to foster an environment that promotes youth having a choice. The program seeks to nourish an environment that encourages social and emotional skills that aid youth in their daily interactions with family, in school, and in the community. As mentors and youth share their COSMOS within SPARK it promotes trust and vulnerability within the SPARK community, empowers youth to know that their voice matters, helps to cultivate social-emotional intelligence and communication skills, and ultimately helps to create empathic understanding between youth and mentors. The proposal will also highlight the family and community thread through the SPARK Program’s utilization of the participatory action-based research approach (PAR). SPARK is an emerging and transformative program where everyone who is involved matters: youth, mentors, director, research team, etc. SPARK promotes an activity-based curriculum (Ex: Ice-breakers, improvisation, West African drumming, art, etc.) to help foster a safe and nurturing environment for youth and university students to connect with one another. Through this culture both youth and university students co-create a community where both learn to trust the process of getting to know one another. Throughout the weekly mentoring sessions individuals share their life stories, also referred to as COSMOS, which empowers youth and mentors to trust a process of cultivating a reciprocal relationship. Many SPARK youth have been stigmatized based upon their behaviors, and have learned that their identity is attached their behaviors. In addition, many of our mentors enter SPARK wanting to show youth how to act and want to provide them with advice. As both become a part of this community, they learn how to let go of their prejudgments, and see each other as sacred. By the finale session, youth and university students have learned to remove stigmas and see and interact with each other in an empathic manner. Presenters will also highlight how they have created a support network within the West Georgia community for SPARK with the following stakeholders: Carroll and Newnan County judges, Department of Juvenile Justice, Non-profit organizations, local businesses, and the University of West Georgia.

Brief Program Description

This presentation will reveal perspectives from youth who have been identified as high-risk and participated in the SPARK Mentoring Program. Youth will highlight what supports them in a mentoring relationship. The objective of this workshop is to provide the audience with qualitative research and activities that promote alternative ways in connecting with youth.


Historically, youth who have been identified as high-risk are often regarded as pathological juvenile delinquents and exclusively known by their disruptive and unsuitable behaviors. Mentoring studies suggest that mentoring can be a valuable assets for such high-risk behaviors including improved academic outcomes, decreased recidivism rates, and improved self-esteem of high-risk youth. While this research is important, the mentoring research has traditionally focused on the need to change the high-risk youth’s behaviors, without asking youth the potential reasons they may be acting out. Thus many youth have been stigmatized and labeled as “a problem” due to acting-out inappropriate behaviors. Other research on mentoring suggests that there is powerful potential in mentoring when youth are provided the opportunity to actively participate in a mentoring relationship on their own terms: decide on the activities, are allowed to explain their backgrounds, and peers and mentors give them the environment to express themselves. These perspectives however, have largely been absent from the research literature. Since 2009, the SPARK Mentoring Program has provided a non-judgmental and humanistic philosophy of working with youth ages 13-18, who have been identified as high-risk by the Department of Juvenile Justice. This workshop will introduce participants to SPARK’s activity-based approach and transformative process. In addition, presenters will share how they have co-created a safe, developmental community with their university students and youth, while affecting change intangibly within both youth’s and mentors’ lives. In addition to discussing the program, SPARK youth will reveal their experiences and express what supports them in a mentoring relationship. Presenters will provide the audience with practical strategies to engage youth and mentors through experiential activities, effective ways to support mentors throughout the mentoring relationship, and engaging ways to create a supportive positive peer culture for youth.


The current research is grounded in the evidenced-based work of positive youth development, which views youth through a strength-based lens rather than seeing them as problems that need to be fixed. This workshop will also reveal the qualitative research that examines participating youth’s perspectives not only their experience with SPARK, but also how their experiences with positive relationships through the SPARK Program may affect their relationships with their families, their involvement with the juvenile justice system, and their education. This research reveals that effective programming exists when researchers intentionally seek to understand the population they are serving. While the SPARK Program was created to help youth rediscover their voices in their personal lives, the research team has also sought to provide a platform that aligns with the SPARK philosophy to ensure a space where their perspective about mentoring is valued. It was through this research that SPARK continues its mission to connect with youth through a humanistic perspective; seeking to know the youth through activities, rather than seeking to change them. This research was also based on client-centered and participatory action-based models.


Individual Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Dr. Thomas Peterson has served for the past 24 years as a professor of Social, Cultural and Philosophical Foundations of Education at the University of West Georgia. He teaches teacher education courses including philosophy, critical theory, and history. His research interests include teachers’ inner-life, teacher burnout/renewal, growing a spiritual classroom, and igniting a SPARK in high-risk adolescence. Son of a preacher, Tom lived his formative years in South East Asia. Prior to his appointment at UWG, he was an elementary/middle school principal in NC, art teacher in California and Maryland, World Masters gold medal winner in badminton, flight instructor, and pilot missionary to Africa.

Since 2000, Michael Frazier has worked with children, adolescents, and families in and out of various treatment communities and educational environments helping them through life’s adversities. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education from Clark Atlanta University, Michael realized that many of the students he encountered struggled with issues beyond the classroom. His desire to be more effective in reaching children and families lead him to earning a Master of Science degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Miami. Today, Michael continues to draw upon his years of experience in helping individuals and families through emotional disturbance, abuse, trauma, anger, and self-esteem in multiple therapeutic settings, and conducts professional workshops. Currently, Michael is completing his Doctorate in Psychology from the University of West Georgia. Michael has also contributed on truTV’s nationally syndicated television show, In Session, and consistently blogs for The Huffington Post.

We also plan on bringing 2 SPARK youth who are under the age of 18 and cannot at this time supply you with their names or information. I'm not sure of the best way to do this. They will be speaking as well.

Keyword Descriptors

Mentoring, youth, high-risk, community, at-risk, transformation

Presentation Year


Start Date

3-8-2016 1:00 PM

End Date

3-8-2016 2:15 PM

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Mar 8th, 1:00 PM Mar 8th, 2:15 PM

SPARK Mentoring: Co-creating sacred relationships with youth


This presentation will reveal perspectives from youth who have been identified as high-risk and participated in the SPARK Mentoring Program. Youth will highlight what supports them in a mentoring relationship. The objective of this workshop is to provide the audience with qualitative research and activities that promote alternative ways in connecting with youth.