Editor's note: This story was originally published in late 2016. It has been updated with information about an upcoming "Create With Cocktails" event on Oct. 5, 2017.
On a normal day, you can expect utter bedlam at Spark!.
Wait, no, it's more like loud, wild, unbridled energy from dozens of school-aged children. That wasn't the scene after hours on Dec. 1. Sometimes this Dallas non-profit even lets adults in so they can see first-hand how this creative space is transforming lives.
Spark! opened in June 2015, in the subbasement of South Side on Lamar -- you know, the hip development in the Cedars neighborhood near downtown Dallas. Flanked by coffee shop and live music spot Opening Bell and wine pub Checkered Past, the mixed-use building is better known for its trendy restaurants and high-end apartments as than a haven for teachers and their tiny charges.
But, despite the Cedars' growing reputation as an "edgy" artists' enclave with a good nightlife scene, the neighborhood is surrounded by low-income families and cash-strapped public schools. That's where Spark! comes in. During daylight hours, you will find students in grades 2 through 12 careening through its massive "Climb Crawl Slide" sculpture or designing recycled works of art from found objects.
The mission is to "ignite the spark" of creativity, to increase self-esteem through risk-taking, exploration and exposure to artistic role models. The goal is to help local children from all socioeconomic backgrounds increase their confidence, problem solving skills and academic performance, and, in doing so, create innovative, empowered future adults.
Throughout the past year, the facility has opened its doors after-hours so adults attending "Create with Cocktails" events can understand why the organization matters. Given the chance, Spark! easily proves it is not just another arcade game birthday party magnet or cut-and-paste after-hours program. It is the beginning of some young Dallasites' brighter future.
We stopped by on Dec. 1 thinking it would be a fun happy hour tour featuring a few inexpensive drinks. It was. But we were also inspired, engaged and transfixed. Here's a glimpse of our good time.
Who goes to Spark!?
Most of the time, Spark! is for groups of 24 or more children on school, summer camp or religious group field trips. Fees range from $8-15 per child, depending on the activity offered. Facility rentals are also available for birthday party packages, summer camps, corporate team building outings or private parties. Yes, you should absolutely consider having your wedding there.
In addition, there are special classes and camps for times when school is out. Want to take up 3-D Virtual Reality Painting or Digital Photography, Comics and Claymation? You can. Evening classes consisting of six sessions are $150 each or $400 for three. If that seems a bit pricey for a place geared to lifting up lower-income students, Spark! utilizes grant money from individuals, businesses and organizations to ensure those students can attend at reduced rates or for free. "We seek to always have a minimum of 35 percent of our [class] attendance be from low income households," says Spark! President and CEO Beverly Davis. "At present we're averaging 46 percent. When we have these opportunities, we work with organizations throughout the community who serve the low income to identify the children for the spots.
The facility is also now open to the public on Saturdays and select holidays -- think, for instance, the week of Christmas and Hanukkah. Cost is $10 per person. Funds raised there, as well as through the Spark! gift shop, concessions stand and special events throughout the year also "go toward funding our high level of participation for the low income population," Davis says.
Most public hours are geared for families with children; the Create With Cocktails event opened the facility for about three hours to adults over 21. It included beer, wine and light snacks for $10. If these happy hour style events are sporadic, why should young, childless folks care? Well, because it is a fun way to give back to a great cause. You'll see.
Creativity ... climbing ... What do you do there?
Most trips to Spark! start off with free play on its "Climb, Crawl, Slide" sculpture. Think of it as sort of a combination art installation and jungle gym. It spans over 6,000 feet with 23 feet of vertical climbs and a 200 square-foot spider web suspended near its center. There are spiral slides, tunnels with psychedelic scenes, and a section set up like a NASA shuttle on one end. On the other side are musical instruments and recording studios, chalkboards for drawing, and a massive Light Bright.
Spark!'s entire 11,000-plus square-foot facility was designed and decorated in collaboration with local artists.
Accidentally color outside the lines on a workshop bench? No problem. Turn your wayward Sharpie streak into a slithery snake. That's the way children learn at Spark!: Mistakes can -- and should -- be part of the process. Traditional education can "really instill a fear of failure, and we're trying to help [young people] get over that," says Davis. It's important not just in individual lives, she adds, but a philosophy that resonates globally.
After the initial exploration phase, the rest of the facility is set up so that instructors can guide students further through that creative landscape with specific projects. During our trip, we collaborated on a group-created piece of art, making a fish out of old compact discs. Then, we used discs to create our own mini versions with hot glue, buttons, markers and construction paper.
So, you want to get involved?
It remains to be seen whether the Create With Cocktails event series will return in 2017; it was originally conceived as a monthly night out, Davis says, but interest and engagement seemed higher when it was limited to just four or five nights in 2016. No formal dates have been set for the event in the coming year yet, but those interested are advised to stay tuned for another installment.
But, even if you don't have children -- or enough cash to rent out the facility for a private party -- there are ways you can help make Spark! available to even more students in the Dallas area. The organization is looking for volunteer brand reps and corporate sponsors, as well as old-fashioned monetary donations, and items you might have lying unneeded around the house.
Want to get involved on the ground floor? Davis says there are volunteer opportunities for virtually anything imaginable from signing on as a Spark! instructor to dusting the massive Climb, Crawl, Slide structure. Fill out this form to see where your valuable skills might fit in.