Five Lessons Learned from Thirty Years of Mentorship

​​​​​Spark the Journey has been serving young adults from low-income communities in DC for over thirty years. We started out working with just four local high school students; today we serve hundreds of young adults annually.  

As we prepare for our 30th-anniversary gala, school graduations, summer internships, workforce certifications, and everything else coming up this spring, we’ve been reflecting on some of the themes that have emerged from three decades of growth. Today, we share the five most important lessons that Spark the Journey is excited to take into the next thirty years and beyond. 

Mentorship Works 

Spark’s programming has evolved over the years, but we’ve been matching program participants with volunteer mentors since day one. Mentorship has remained at the core of our services because it continues to be a proven tool for helping young people on their paths to success.  

Studies from demonstrate the positive impact that mentorship has on young people’s engagement with their community: young adults with a mentor are 78% more likely to volunteer regularly and 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.  

At Spark, our own program participants continue to report personal, academic, and professional benefits. During the 2021/2022 school year, 89% of our post-secondary students remained enrolled in college – a key predictor of college persistence. Meanwhile, 79% of program participants reported being more confident in setting goals – a skill that will serve them for life. 

The data is backed up by thousands of conversations we’ve had with our young adults over the years. They’ve shared in their own words how mentorship made a lasting impact on their lives. Find their stories in our Spotlights section. 

Showing Up Matters 

Consistency is key to mentorship. Many people think that a single “aha moment” in a conversation will make the biggest impact on a young person’s life, but that’s rarely the case. In reality, mentors might not always see the impact that they’re making ​in the​ moment. That’s why continuing to show up is so important.  

The best mentors show up for their mentees without an agenda. They let their mentee’s needs and goals drive the relationship, and they’re willing to adapt as those evolve over time. We’ve heard from countless Spark alumni who still value the long-term impact of their mentor relationship, years after it formally ended. And from our mentors, we’ve heard that the benefits go both ways. They often get just as much out of it as their mentees. 

Mentorship is Just One Piece of the Puzzle 

At the same time, we’ve learned that mentorship is just one of many tools an organization like Spark should provide. 99% of Spark program participants are people of color and 100% come from low-income households. The barriers they face on the road to economic mobility are many. Centuries of institutionalized racism have led to them attending under-resourced schools, living in under-resourced communities, and lacking access to generational wealth. 

While mentorship is a powerful tool for increasing opportunity, it can’t solve these generational challenges alone. What Spark can do, as we’ve learned over the years, is offer additional wraparound services to address as many of these barriers as we can.  

We’ve evolved to offer an entire community of support, including case management, tutoring, professional development, an emergency fund program, and more. Embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into our programming has been another important step. We strive to ensure that we’re helping our mentors and mentees access the tools they need to dismantle harmful systems and stereotypes – not perpetuate them.  

There are Multiple Pathways to Success 

College persistence used to be Spark’s sole focus. But a college degree is no longer the only reliable path to economic mobility. Thanks to today’s rapidly evolving workforce – and increasingly unaffordable tuitions – young people can achieve financial security in a variety of ways. A two-year degree, a four-year degree, workforce training, ​​and paid, relevant job experience can all set a person up for success. 

Few of us are successful in life by following a defined, linear path – and so we don’t believe communities should expect their young people to conform to one. Instead, we’ve adjusted our program model to support our young adults as they pursue a path of their own making, whether that involves college persistence or workforce preparation. 

Our Young People Have Limitless Potential 

The most important lesson we’ve learned across thirty years of mentorship is that our young people have unlimited potential. 

Just by choosing to get involved with Spark, our program participants demonstrate an enormous level of maturity – a willingness to believe in themselves and invest in their futures from a young age. They exhibit enormous talent, ambition, and resilience every day.  

Spark alumni have gone on to become entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers, doctors, non-profit workers, and more. Our community is stronger because of their contributions. We’re honored to have been a part of their journeys over the last three decades and we look forward to many more to come.