Sparking Change From a Tiny Midtown Office

Seeing the growing educational disparity and increasing achievement gap in NYC, a team of young educators at Sparks Within Reach has come together to assist homeless youth and fight the issues firsthand.

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By The Photo Department

As the new school year starts, most of us wake up with a roof over our heads, our school supplies at the ready, and endless resources at our fingertips. These things allow us to pursue the education we dream of and prepare for success. However, not everybody is afforded these privileges. In New York City alone, 4,600 houseless youth spend their nights on the streets and their days in shelters without a place to call home. Seeing the growing educational disparity and increasing achievement gap, a team of young educators has come together to fight the issues.

Anna Pacheco (’18) co-founded Sparks Within Reach with her Harvard classmate Rukaiya Sharmi in 2017 to combat the effects of a deeply flawed education system on homeless youth. As a teen in New York City, Pacheco volunteered for an organization called Back on My Feet, where volunteers and homeless youth run together not knowing who is a member of the shelter and who is a volunteer. There, she encountered many homeless youth whom she connected with immediately, finding that they were just like everybody else. Meeting these people set Pacheco on a quest. “I was just really drawn to wanting to amplify the voices and resources of these people who are going through such a vulnerable situation,” Pacheco recalled.

Inspired by the resilience and courage of the homeless youth she volunteered with, Pacheco went on to found the Stuyvesant Homeless Coalition while still a sophomore at Stuyvesant. The club organized soup kitchens and breakfast runs for the homeless. However, she found herself wanting to give more. She wanted to build a stronger relationship with the people she worked with. She explained, “I thought, let’s [...] serve our community with our tutoring skillset. We can build this amazing relationship while also elevating a student’s academic potential and allowing them to see school as a resource that they can navigate and be able to use.”

For a while, Sparks Within Reach was only an idea. Pacheco first needed a dedicated team to undertake such an ambitious initiative. But she quickly found that she was not alone in wanting to make a difference. Many of her like-minded peers, many of whom were part of the Stuyvesant Homeless Coalition, were excited to join her. Just like that, Sparks Within Reach was born. One of Pacheco’s first recruits was Stuyvesant Homeless Coalition member Veronica Fuentes. The Stuyvesant senior recounts her initial joining: “I wanted to see if I could do something more besides just helping out at soup kitchens and going on breakfast runs. [Sparks Within Reach] was a really unique opportunity and not something I’d seen before. I’ve been tutoring kids since I was in sixth or seventh grade, so I figured, why not put that tutoring to good use?”

The small team of volunteers, then called No One Gets Left Behind, began tutoring children living in New York City’s Barrier Free Living Apartments. Tutors like Fuentes saw the impact of one-on-one tutoring firsthand with one of her students over the summer. Her tutee struggled with understanding and reading words, so Fuentes was forced to find innovative solutions to help her student learn. Fuentes recounted, “We started doing Pictionary or Skribbl.io at the beginning of each session. Instructors would draw pictures, and we would try to spell them out together! Seeing her progress from trying to spell those words at the beginning of the eight weeks to the end, [when] she was writing full sentences [on] her own with minimal spelling mistakes, was amazing […] I felt really positive about the future for her after that experience.” The rest of the team was just as inspired, and the company grew rapidly. Pacheco brought on her friends and fellow students to expand the services Sparks Within Reach could provide.

Pacheco’s classmate Nicola Manfredi (’18) was one of the first on board. Manfredi first heard about Sparks Within Reach from Pacheco during a dinner: “She was telling me about what the mission was and what everybody was trying to do, and I really aligned with it. I wanted to join in any capacity that I could, and I told her that I’d be willing to create a science curriculum for the students since I was a pre-med student. Anna was really open to the idea and had actually been looking for someone to do that for a while.” Manfredi has since gone on to become the co-director of the curriculum team. This team now boasts comprehensive divisions for English and math, history and government, science, video creation, computer science, and even research. Manfredi’s personal goals have also expanded since meeting the family at Sparks Within Reach. “I saw how passionate everybody was and how important the mission is, especially during COVID. It’s been driving my motor ever since. It’s been amazing,” he said.

For Manfredi, it is the people he is doing the work for that drive his creativity: “I think it really comes down to the tangibility of our work and how everything we do is definitely going to be used. [For] a lot of internship opportunities, especially in the science field, you do research, but it doesn’t really feel like your work has any direct impact on anybody; it’s very detached. But, here, whatever we do, we’re the people doing it. That’s what pushes me to really put in my best effort all the time because I know it’s going to have an impact on our students.”

To strengthen the impact that Sparks Within Reach could make on their students, Manfredi began to recruit his friends, including his Stuyvesant classmate Mark Shafran (’18). Now a Columbia math-stats and financial economics major, Shafran joined the Sparks Within Reach team after what he calls a “life-changing” phone call from Manfredi: “As soon as he [Manfredi] told me about it, I was in love and knew that this was the perfect opportunity to genuinely make a difference. I came to that first board meeting and was overwhelmed by the infectious energy. Every single person in that call was driven, excited, and passionate about the cause, and I knew that I was in the right place. The rest is history.”

Shafran has since gone on to become the Co-Director of Finance and Marketing, along with his old classmate and good friend George Li (’18). The two are dedicated to ensuring that Sparks Within Reach can sustain its expansion financially.

The Finance and Marketing team, which recently recruited a new team of fall interns, has grown tremendously, with now over 20 members. Stuyvesant senior Ruth Lee, who joined in March of this year, is one of these interns. Originally an instructor, Lee was also part of the website development team, which revamped the entire Sparks Within Reach online presence this summer during the Financing and Marketing internship. Lee described her progress with Sparks Within Reach: “Throughout the past year, I was able to personally see the growth and offer support to my students. I’ve worked with bigger and more established educational companies, but none gave me the freedom to be able to venture into my interests and apply them to the workplace.”

It is not just another line on their resume or fun summer experience that these volunteers will walk away with. For many, their time at Sparks Within Reach has been eye-opening and life changing. In the words of Shafran, “While I have learned far more than I can describe through working at Sparks Within Reach, the two things that stand out most are adaptability and to never stop learning. While much has gone according to plan, there were times when things did not play out the way that I had expected. However, I learned to never give up and to leave my ego at the door, instead adapting and changing course. […] I truly believe that the day we stop learning and become complacent is the day that we stop making progress, and I refuse to allow myself to remain stagnant.”

Manfredi shares Shafran’s sentiment. While speaking to his fellow Curriculum Director Guo, Manfredi came to realize that his career aspirations have been completely changed as a result of the massive growth of Sparks Within Reach—the accessible mission of the organization and its rapid growth mean that Manfredi and Guo may be able to pursue a career within the company full time should they decide to forego medical school. “We both agreed that if Sparks Within Reach becomes what we believe it will come, we’re ready to devote ourselves to it,” he said. Manfredi elaborated on the significance of this realization: “That was the first time ever that I hadn’t been one-track-minded and considered anything other than becoming a doctor. Having that break and thinking, ‘Wow! This is a possibility’ was an amazing moment.”

While some volunteers may depart the company and move on with their lives, Sparks Within Reach is here to stay for the sake of the children it serves. Pacheco explained, “We have committed to our values and figured out the actual needs of the people we work with instead of just guessing […] We plan on watching all these kids go to college—we aren't leaving any time soon.”

The company now has new goals—to provide the students with food, supplies, and a place for community building. “We want to go beyond being a service that travels somewhere and more so be a service where we can welcome people and welcome families to build this Sparks Within Reach community,” Pacheco expressed. In the future, Pacheco hopes to continue to combat the stigma around homelessness in new ways. “Before, Sparks Within Reach was very service-oriented. However, now, after talking to high school and college students, I’ve realized that educational inequity is something we don't really talk about. If we can start teaching and mass-educating younger children, then we can start making change from the inside out,” Pacheco said.

Though the members of Sparks Within Reach are all still students, their accomplishments, passion, and drive show a promising future for New York City’s education. Fuentes shared, “I've learned so much from Anna and Rukaiya about education reform, current events, and what the future of education looks like. It's also given me a lot of hope—if the people I’m seeing at Sparks Within Reach are going out and becoming educators, then so much is possible.”