By Elsa Wenzel
Sunny Toreihi had no idea the impact that four hours of service and education during her first year at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College would have on her life path.
Through the SPARC program—which stands for Service, Passion, Action, Rollins College—she volunteered with the Pace Center for Girls, which empowers and educates young girls from underserved backgrounds by providing access to counseling, service learning, career preparation and skills development. While cleaning and painting alongside her fellow Tars, Toreihi’s volunteerism ignited a long-term dream to become a gender rights lawyer.
“SPARC Day was the first moment that really challenged me and took me out of my comfort zone in a way that propelled me toward my career,” said Toreihi, a double major in philosophy and political science.
What started as one day of engagement and education led Toreihi to seek out service opportunities focused on domestic violence and political advocacy through her involvement with the Bonner Leaders Program, a national philanthropic organization that empowers scholarship recipients to address some of today’s greatest challenges through community-based learning. She has now been accepted to a public policy master’s program at Georgetown University and plans to pursue a juris doctorate as well.
“Because of my SPARC experience, everything came together in my Rollins journey,” Toreihi said. “I have so much appreciation for those four hours of service, which really showed me what I wanted to do with my life and career.”
The Shape of SPARC
Toreihi is one of thousands of Rollins students and graduates who have expanded their horizons by engaging in the annual day of service, which is now in its 15th year. Traditionally, incoming students are introduced to SPARC during orientation by visiting a nonprofit site that relates to an issue explored in their Rollins College Conference (RCC) course, a model that shows students firsthand how engaging in the community beyond campus is a critical piece of the Rollins experience.
That tradition of bringing the classroom into the community will continue in a new form this fall as SPARC evolves to meet the health and wellness needs of Rollins College students and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of kicking off the year with a day of face-to-face, collective actions across Central Florida, the 2020 fall semester will extend the spirit of SPARC across an ongoing series of service opportunities called SPARC Moments.
Rollins’ Center for Leadership & Community Engagement (CLCE) is building the emerging SPARC Moments as a unique way to guide students in finding their passion while serving the unique needs of community partners. The series of activities will likely combine virtual and in-person experiences.
“This takes the vision of SPARC and infuses it into our programming throughout the semester,” said Meredith Hein, director of CLCE. “It’s so significant for students to be willing to step outside campus to really understand the community they’re going to be living in for the next few years.”
To align SPARC Moments with heartfelt interests, CLCE sent first-year and transfer students a survey about their passions and social-impact areas of interest. After filling out the survey, the students will be contacted by their SPARC ambassador—either a member of the CLCE team or a trained upper-class student—to set up a one-on-one virtual conversation about community engagement at Rollins and in Central Florida.
During the week of August 17, students will engage with CLCE and peer ambassadors in meaningful conversations about their interests. They’ll come up with tailored plans for how they hope to contribute to the greater community, whether it’s on campus, within Central Florida, or another community in which they live.
“This allows students to focus individually and really think about their interests and passions before they think about the bigger picture and how best to support the community’s needs,” Hein said. “They’re thinking about how to potentially make an impact and leave something behind.”
As an intern for CLCE in 2018, Meredith Egan helped plan SPARC Day. “For many new students it is their first introduction to our wider community of partners and organizations,” said Egan, who’s now interning at OCA, a local nonprofit that supports children and adults with autism in partnership with theatre professor Marianne DiQuattro. “My SPARC Day as a student introduced me to Orlando and the ways Rollins students embrace the college’s mission of service and leadership.”
Another facet of SPARC Moments are the “5 Minute Difference” videos posted to the CLCE Instagram every Friday. Students can participate in service activities with their families and peers that don’t require leaving their home. Past community partners have included New Hope for Kids, Winter Park Housing Authority, The Center Orlando and Clean the World, among others.
“You don’t necessarily have to go out and be around other people doing these big, showy things to create change,” said Sofia Macias, CLCE’s office and community coordinator. “It can be as simple as sending a letter or making a phone call.”
In more than 15 years of SPARC Day, more than 10,000 Tars have contributed over 40,000 hours of service to 75 community partners across Central Florida. In 2019 alone, 700 Tars participated with 23 nonprofit organizations, providing an impact equivalent to nearly $80,000.
“Our partnership with Rollins is wonderfully valued,” said Gloria Capozzi, marketing director of New Hope for Kids, which helps children grieve and cope with a serious illness or the loss of a parent. “Our organization grows stronger each year with the involvement of the service-minded opportunities the school provides.”
Robin Frisella, a gifted teacher at Tangelo Park Elementary School, has been partnering with Rollins through the SPARC program since its inception. She notes how Tars have done everything from painting classrooms and landscaping to creating bulletin boards and distributing curriculum materials. “I know that I won the lottery when I met my Rollins partners, and so have my students,” Frisella said. “When I say that SPARC Day has inspired kids and teachers and has changed lives, I do not exaggerate. I am a better person and a better teacher because of our partnership.”
Life is for Service
The SPARC program only scratches the surface of how Rollins—named by Florida Campus Compact as Florida’s Most Engaged Campus—places active citizenship front and center. Students take the passion they find in SPARC and put it into action throughout their undergraduate journey. Here are a few of the myriad ways Tars engage with communities both in Rollins’ backyard and around the world.
From removing invasive species in the Everglades and helping support women fighting poverty in Chicago to learning about the challenges of undocumented citizens just 40 minutes from campus, Rollins’ Immersion program helps students and faculty engage in weekend and weeklong journeys of education, reflection and action, learning what it really takes on the ground to create lasting change. In fact, Rollins has repeatedly ranked No. 1 in the nation for its high participation in alternative breaks. In 2019 alone, the Immersion program engaged nearly 355 Tars in contributing over 2,500 hours of service to 25 nonprofit community partners across the country. This fall, the Immersion program will focus on educational experiences and virtual service opportunities to meet the needs of the community.
Bonners Leaders Program
Students in the national Bonner Leaders Program devote eight hours per week during their entire four years at Rollins to volunteer with local organizations. Whether it’s developing art therapies for kids with special needs, working to start a service-dog-raising program on campus, or partnering with a social venture that sells environmentally friendly handbags made by women in Zimbabwe, the Bonner Leaders discover purpose alongside passion and test their ability to make the world brighter.
Community Engagement Courses
Rollins’ diverse group of community engagement (CE) courses deliver on the College’s commitment to service, synthesizing classroom learning with real-world experience right in Rollins’ own backyard. More than 250 community partnerships have been integrated into the CE curriculum, which includes everything from creating theater for adults and children with autism to producing a communications campaign for Kids Beating Cancer to developing a walking-tour app for the Hannibal Square Heritage Center.
The students behind the nonpartisan Democracy Project drive voter registration and turnout on campus, equipping their fellow Tars with information about candidates running for public office and the issues at stake. Last year, the group held seven voter registration drives and eight Politics on Tap events that engaged more than 300 Tars in the democratic process.
Emerging Leadership Institute
Cultivating the next generation of ethical leaders, Rollins’ Emerging Leadership Institute empowers promising first- and second-year students to develop as individuals and leaders and to grow more cohesive as a community. Twenty-three emerging leaders participated last year, and the program has become so popular that it’s now being held twice a year instead of annually. This fall’s programming will take place virtually.
This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Rollins College website.