What’s the Spark Emergency Fund and Why Does it Matter?

At Spark the Journey, mentorship is the core of our mission — but it’s far from the only thing we do. One of our lesser-known services is also one of our most important ones: providing access to the Spark Emergency Fund.

The Spark Emergency Fund is available to all of our program participants. It covers need-based academic and household requests, such as textbooks, school supplies, rent, groceries, and wi-fi. Last year, we received 448 requests from 189 of our program participants, prompting us to disburse over $179,000 to cover unexpected or urgent needs as they arose. That means that the average grant per request was $401 — a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, but enough to make a difference in an emergency.

Every year on Giving Tuesday, we fundraise for the Spark Emergency Fund so that we can continue to be there for our young people in times of need. Here’s a full overview of how the fund works and why it is such a vital service.

Financial need is high, even post-pandemic

The racial wealth gap in the United States is enormous. Nationally, the median white household has eight times the wealth of the median Black household. In DC, the disparity is so large that it’s almost unthinkable: white households here have 81 times the wealth of Black ones.

At Spark the Journey, 99% of our program participants identify as people of color. Most of them live in Wards 5, 7, and 8, the wards with the lowest incomes and highest poverty levels in the District due to centuries of racial inequality. Moreover, their families were disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most of the world has returned to business as usual, but our program participants have not had that luxury. Emergency Fund disbursals shot from $2,000 per month to $15,000 per month in the first year of the pandemic. We have yet to see requests return to anything close to pre-pandemic levels – indicating that the need remains as urgent as it has ever been.

Funds remove barriers to success

Spark mentors work with mentees on achieving their academic and professional goals, and we’ve seen firsthand how successful the mentorship model can be. But we’ve also seen how financial barriers can threaten to undo all of our young people’s hard work.

100% of our program participants come from low-income households. There are times when academic expenses, or even basic necessities like groceries, are unaffordable for reasons out of their control. “My mother really struggles with meeting the bill payments sometimes,” explains Nyoami, a Spark high school student. “These funds helped me have a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and deepened my exploration as a student and overall person. I can achieve things that usually I’m not able to do.”

Last year, groceries were the most requested category of Emergency Fund requests. They were followed by textbooks, school fees, school supplies, and other household necessities.

No one should have to choose between long-term economic mobility and putting food on the table today. That is why the Emergency Fund exists: to ensure that our young people don’t have to put college or career on the backburner in times of need.

Funds are disbursed efficiently

Government aid is a vital resource for our young people, but it can be difficult to access and slow to materialize. By contrast, Spark averages 4.6 days from initial fund request to disbursal. By processing funds quickly, we help our young people mitigate emergencies before they escalate. It might be as simple as helping a student purchase a graphing calculator so that they’re able to pass a class and graduate on time. Or making up the difference in rent to prevent a young person from losing housing. Whatever the need is, we’re committed to awarding funds in time to meet it.

Funds normalize asking for help

At Spark, we’re already working with young people to develop the skills they need to achieve economic mobility. This includes soft skills like networking and time management, but asking for help is absolutely one such skill as well. With the Emergency Fund, it’s one they can immediately put it into practice.

According to Brian, a recent program alum, this is one of the most important things he learned at Spark. “As a first-generation college student and a child of immigrants, I had become accustomed to trying to figure everything out on my own and was hesitant to reach out for help,” he says. “Now I have learned to make use of the vast resources at my disposal that have helped me get through college and will help me during the start of my career.”

Support the Spark Emergency Fund

Our program participants are talented, motivated, and resilient. They’re already doing the hard work that it takes to achieve college and career success. Removing financial barriers is a simple – yet powerful – way to support their goals. You can help us tackle these barriers by making a gift to the Spark Emergency Fund.