Center that helps kids in need facing rocky future

The SPARK Center doesn't feel like a medical facility. The smell of sloppy joes permeates the air; the scent of the day's lunch fills the Mattapan house every day, creating a homey feeling for the children.

The classrooms, like those in many schools, are walled by corkboards covered with colorful images. The halls are lined with pictures from the center's sister program in Uganda, the Namugongo Fund for Special Children. For the families involved, the SPARK Center is a saving grace.

Two-year-old Jayden, who was born several months early with a weight of just 1 lb, 3 oz, is a case in point. At one time, Jayden's mother Andrea wondered if he would survive. Today, he's an active, playful toddler who thrives in the Mattapan program.

Born after only a 25-week gestation period, Jayden spent 113 days in a neo-intensive care unit before going home. His primary care doctor suggested that his mother check out SPARK. He was enrolled at the center in October of 2006.

"Prior to going to the SPARK Center, I anticipated quitting my job to be a stay at home mom," said Andrea. "Jayden was on oxygen when he started there. He was a very tiny boy."

In existence for almost 20 years, the SPARK Center supports parents and resilient kids who have been infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and, more recently, children suffering from neurological, emotional and behavioral challenges including premature birth. The center came into being through the combined efforts of the Family Development Center and the Children AIDS Program.

"Together, over the past five years, we have expanded our mission to serve children with a whole variety of complex medical issues as well as emotional and behavioral issues," said director Martha Vibbert.

Vibbert was recently notified that as of Oct. 1, the center will lose all of its support from the Boston Medical Center, which is suffering from a loss of state funding and other financial stresses. The BMC funding makes up 30 percent of the center's core budget.

The center has also suffered a significant loss of its private donors and grant giving foundations.

"BMC is struggling to maintain its acute care programs and we aren't considered an acute care program," said Vibbert. "We are all very disappointed and it is going to be very emotional for the families."

The program currently manages to help 90 to100 children a year. Run out of a home on River Street, the center helps children from infancy straight through high school develop so that they are able to interact and participate in mainstream society.

"We measure success by whether a child can integrate into the public school system," said Vibbert.

In an effort to survive, the program has cut back on plans to provide more extensive care for premature babies. Vibbert and program coordinator Barbara Farrell have been working with the BMC development office to seek out new funders.

Meanwhile, their core work continues.

"We ask a lot of families. We want them to be active participants," said Vibbert. "Some families come in and eat breakfast with the kids. We have a lot of psycho-ed programs to help support parenting. We have helped parents who are in the process of regaining custody visit their children in a comfortable place and give mental health support if they need it."

Through education, they have helped to keep the vertical (parent to child) and horizontal (partner to partner) and they have helped the families of these children cope with the children's health needs. Play therapy is used to help the children express their feelings, and, when the situation calls for it, instructors take children to the chill out room where they are given the chance to calm down after having a fit.

For their teenage students, there is the SPARK Center TICKET to Success. This program allows students the opportunity to work with mentally disabled children and help them succeed academically, including GED prep. The program helps to perpetuate a cycle of community giving among Boston's youth, so much so that some of SPARK's former students have come back to teach in the classrooms.

"As they approach young adulthood we've built this job training program, which is very much our effort to track success as income earners and take care of themselves," said Vibbert. "[It helps to] establish themselves in their own households, given that they don't in many cases have families to help them. Our goal is to help them get there."

"SPARK is the solid rock place for kids", Laura Mitchell, a counselor at the center. "If there is something that they can hold onto that's the same, it helps them immeasurably."

The center, in conjunction with Boston University, sponsors the Mental Health Training Program that allows graduate students from the university to work at the center and learn the proper training to deal with children with mental illness.

With the help of the SPARK staff, Jayden is happy and healthy. He interacts with the other children and staff on a level that his mother believes he would not have if he had not been a part of the SPARK program.

"The treatment that Jayden received there made me stop thinking about quitting my job," Andrea explained, fighting through tears. "I believe if I had kept him home with me he would have never developed the way he has today without being in the SPARK Center. Looking at Jayden and seeing where he is now, I sometimes just breakdown."