Sparks Camp teaches students and improves community

By Jackie Bussjaeger/Press Publications, Jul 7, 2017

St Croix Valley Area Lowdown

Sparks Camp teaches students and improves community

STILLWATER — Some might call it killing two birds with one stone; in Stillwater it’s known as social enterprise.

The Stillwater Area Foundation recently launched a new program called Sparks Social Enterprise Camp, which invites high school students to explore the concept of social enterprise and come up with ideas to apply in their own community. Basically, a social enterprise works to fulfill unmet needs in a community—it functions as a business and a way to make improvements.

Stillwater Area Foundation Board Chair Maria Reamer said the foundation had been thinking about a program of this type for several years, and a $10,000 grant from RBC Wealth Management for a youth initiative helped propel it to reality in 2017.

“Our goal has been to start up a youth philanthropy committee that wanted to do something to encourage youth in the community to … learn strategies to give back,” Reamer said. “So we started Sparks Social Enterprise Camp.”

Youth participants met for one week in June, and toured locations in Stillwater and the greater Twin Cities area where they could observe social enterprise at work.

Space was donated by the Idea Pad on Main Street, and the class was taught by Mike Vergin, a teacher at Mounds Park Academy. All of the students involved will be juniors or seniors in high school next year. Students filled out an application expressing their interest in social enterprise, and provided references.

“We took everybody this year, they’re all great kids,” Reamer said. “The applicants were all really interested already in philanthropy and what they can do. They’re really interested in how they can help the community they live in.”

“Social enterprises kind of seem like the way of the future to me,” said incoming Stillwater senior Lauren Capra, a participant in the Sparks Camp. “I wanted to become a part of that, I wanted to become better educated. I really enjoyed  it. I’ve been introduced to a lot of different social enterprises around the community, made a lot of different connections. We’ve been able to talk to presidents of different companies, and it’s been really awesome to make those connections and be able to utilize them as resources.”

One of the standout businesses on the field trip for Capra was Cookie Cart in Minneapolis. Cookie Cart is a nonprofit bakery that employs youth ages 15-18, helping them build their resumes and work experience while also offering education through classroom job readiness training.

“Like (the owner) said, it’s the most inefficient bakery in the world,” Capra said. “I thought that was awesome, because they don’t care. They just care about educating kids, they care about getting kids in there, getting them a future. I think that’s so awesome to see how much they’ve impacted the people in that community—especially in North Minneapolis. Those students are being raised in pretty tough communities. Their education systems might not be the best. So what Cookie Cart is doing for those kids is really amazing.”

In addition to Cookie Cart, students in the Sparks camp visited New Rules for Black Professionals and Food for Thought Cafe in Minneapolis, and Keys 4/4 Kids and Express Bike Shop in St. Paul. The day ended with a visit to Special Products LLC in Stillwater.

Throughout the week, each student worked on a project related to solving common problems in the surrounding community, on topics such as diversity, mental illness and water quality. Capra chose the topic of mental illness and substance abuse.

“It’s something I’ve faced personally, and definitely a topic that hasn’t been talked about very much,” she said. “I’m affected by it every single day. In the high school I see kids struggling with it, and they don’t get the help they need.” Capra explained that each group had to come up with a business plan to address these needs in the community with a social enterprise of their own.

Students presented their small-group projects at the end of the week; afterward, a graduation ceremony was held. Reamer said the foundation hopes to make Sparks Social Enterprise Camp a yearly event.

The Stillwater Foundation is also helping improve Stillwater in other ways this summer. It awarded the 2017 Great Idea Challenge award to a group of locals who will work to improve the famous Stillwater steps on Main Street. Sara Jespersen, Maria Beaudin, Terri McEnaney and Colleen Moran proposed a plan to beautify the iconic steps over the course of the summer, and received $10,000 to make it happen.

The project includes repairing and replacing some of the cracked and unsightly concrete, removing invasive plants such as buckthorn, placing a new light and plaque on the site, removing graffiti, and placing potted plants. The group also hopes for donations of trees, plants and benches that can be installed. Expansions are planned to both the base of the stairs and the overlook at the top to make it a more comfortable sitting area.

“People are always using those steps; it’s something that everyone is really excited about,” Reamer said. “We try to look for something that will enhance the quality of life for all residents of the Stillwater area. It includes not just Stillwater, but Lake Elmo, Grant, Marine on St. Croix, and we like to find something that will enhance the whole community. People come to the stairs from all over and use it.”

Reamer also said that improving the downtown area fits well into the changes that will arrive with the opening of the St. Croix Crossing Bridge in August. With less bridge traffic downtown, the city expects to become more pedestrian-friendly.

Learn more about the Stillwater Area Foundation’s initiatives at www.stillwaterareafoundation.org.

Jackie Bussjaeger is the editor of the Forest Lake and St. Croix Valley Lowdown, and can be reached at 651-407-1229 or lowdownnews@presspubs.com.

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