Rachel Vrabec
Rachel Vrabec, a
mentor with Spark,
has coordinated
the effort with IBM
volunteers in Chicago.
Zack Siegert, also
a mentor, joined
the team in

Pick just about any objective and credible measure of effectiveness in mentoring at-risk young people in the United States and it may illustrate a formula for success.

Here are three to consider: every dollar invested in quality youth mentoring programs yields a $3 return in benefits to society; 76 percent of at-risk young adults who had a mentor aspire to enroll in and graduate from college versus 56 percent who didn’t have a mentor; young adults at-risk of falling off track who had a mentor are 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.

The impressive numbers rely on one vital constant in the equation: having dedicated and committed volunteers to serve as mentors.

“I've benefited from strong mentors in my life and think everyone should have that guidance and encouragement,” says Rachel Vrabec, a deal manager with IBM and a volunteer mentor with a national not-for-profit in the Unites States called Spark—an organization that inspires students to succeed in high school and beyond by connecting them with mentors.

In 2014, about a year after joining IBM, Rachel ran a lunch and learn to introduce Spark to new employees in the Chicago area; she’s always looking for new volunteers. Zack Siegert was among those who liked what he heard and since then, he and Rachel have shared the lead role coordinating IBM mentors in the Spark program.

“I had participated in mentoring programs throughout college and was pleased to see that the opportunity existed here at IBM,” says Zack, who facilitates the development of enterprise apps at IBM for the healthcare industry. “Working with our students through Spark, and with my fellow IBM volunteers, has been rewarding.”

Every flame starts with a spark

Founded in 2004 in the San Francisco area, Spark works both sides of the relationship in mentoring: helping underserved youth become motivated learners, and encouraging adults to nurture young people through mentoring and volunteerism.

As part of Rachel and Zack’s recruitment efforts, over 40 IBM volunteer mentors have participated in Spark in the last two years; with several volunteers returning over multiple years, contributing more than 100 hours to the group.

“Most of our volunteers join because they see the students and mentors in the office on Friday,” says Rachel. “The energy of the group and positive word of mouth are the best recruitment tools.”

The Spark program unfolds over nine weeks, during which a student, also called a mentee, and mentor meet at the IBM office every Friday for two hours to create a Science Technology Engineering or Math (STEM) project, based on the student’s interests and mentor’s skill set.

In 2015, Spark paired twenty students in grades seven and eight, from Ariel Academy in Chicago, with IBM mentors. The activities and projects from that year ranged from making a 3D printed object to creating an educational website.

“We had a mentor guide a student through the process of creating a business case to move the Oakland Raiders football team to Los Angeles,” says Rachel. “It combined the student's interest in sports and the mentor's knowledge of business in a way that was creative and engaging.”

At the end of the semester, the students share their projects with others during Discovery Day, or “Share your Spark Day,” as Rachel and Zack called the 2015 event at IBM.

“The project showcase is an opportunity for students to share their work with teachers, friends, and family. They create posters, presentations, and pitches leading up to the showcase,” says Rachel. “Naturally, they’re a little jittery beforehand, but confidence-building and trust are part of the process. It’s also a great way for other IBMers to see the projects and ask questions about Spark.”

All the projects have some creativity and Zack recalls one particular presentation. “One student wanted to become an architect so his mentors, Annie Fernandez and Ellie Crist, worked with him to design his dream home; he ended up with a water slide from his bedroom, a science lab and an entire room dedicated to catching ghosts.”

Can’t quantify “proud”

Rachel admits that it is sometimes challenging to organize everyone while also being a mentor, but appreciates the resources available to help her and the support from Spark and the other mentors. “It is rewarding to build a strong IBM community” behind this effort, she says.

During the 2015 session, among other assets, the volunteer mentors used pre-packaged IBM Activity Kits about Cloud and Watson to help excite their mentees about technology.

And the “Mentor of the Semester” award from Spark gives Rachel and Zack a way to recognize mentors for their efforts.

Neil Bhatt, an IBM senior consultant and volunteer in the program received the honor for his exemplary mentoring. “His positive attitude, big personality, and humorous jokes made him a favorite with the students,” says Zack.

Rachel and Zack are already planning the 2016-2017 school year, when Spark will pair them with students from Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s Southwest side.

New IBM mentors and those coming back for another year will be pleased to know their volunteerism does make a difference: 92 percent of Spark students have graduated or are on track to graduate on time, compared to an average of 68 percent in those districts.

However, some things can’t be quantified. “The work is most satisfying to me when a student finishes the program feeling proud of what they’ve accomplished,” says Zack. “It’s a terrific feeling to be a part of that.”

About these stories

Read about IBMers whose volunteer efforts are improving communities around the world.

Activity Kits

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