Youth in Care Learn What College Can Be Like: The 2019 Spark Teen Camp

By Shannon Mann-Butler, MSSW, MAC, and Travis Hand

Spark Swag
The “Welcome” PowerPoint and several of the free Spark gifts for camp attendees, pictured above.

Since 2014, the UT Spark program has hosted a teen camp for foster youth.  The event has grown immensely in the past four years, transforming into a two-day camp and conference event at UT Austin where current foster youth get the chance to learn about and experience college life firsthand. The camp is also designed to give the students a chance to learn about how, as foster youth, they have access to resources and financial assistance that will make their college careers as successful and debt free as possible.

Students arrived for the 2019 conference on June 24th, where they were gifted with the latest UT gear, including t-shirts, backpacks, pens and notebooks.  Since students often don’t know anyone else attending this event, the conference always kicks off by creating groups for a team building ice breaker. These teams give the groups an opportunity to get to know each other better and to help attendees start to form relationships with one another. Travis Hand, Spark intern turned Program Assistant, kicked off the first session of the camp, which was titled “College 101.” During this session, attendees got insight on the difference between high school and college, learned some college lingo, and got to ask questions and learn about Greek life, football games, school spirit, and more.  Other sessions included activities on teambuilding, trust building, community building, responsibilities and empowerment.  A particular highlight for the Spark team this year was being able to host three UT students as guest panelists for the teens in attendance.

Conference attendees got a glimpse of life on campus by sleeping and eating in the Jester dorms and getting to bowl and play pool at the Union Underground. The students were able to familiarize themselves even more with the UT Campus through campus tours and a fun nighttime scavenger hunt. This year continued the tradition of the Blanton Museum of Art tour, which has always been a highlight for guests. This year, there was a new stop on the tours at the Gordon White Building. Thanks to the African and African Diaspora Studies Department (AADS), attendees were able to learn about the art that resides at UT, and have lunch prepared by the amazing Fresh Chefs Society. Their luncheon not only included a delicious meal with new friends, but also came with a special cooking demonstration by Shaleiah Fox, the Associate Director of External Relations at AADS and the founder of Fresh Chefs. Some of the attendees won cooking essentials, including a cast iron skillet and utensils!

Spark is housed within the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing, where they have fully committed to partnering with DFPS’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program to encourage and support former foster youth to achieve their goals as they transition out of the Foster Care System. It has been well documented that many former foster youth experience negative outcomes in regards to education, and the Spark program firmly believes that creating opportunities like this camp can start to shift those outcomes for the better. Spark wants to thank all of their partners who contributed to the 2019 Spark Teen Camp, including the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, Dean of Students Office, Counseling and Mental Health, Housing and Food, Admissions, Financial Aid, Undergraduate Studies, African American Diaspora Studies Department, and its very own Spark Student Group to make this the most successful event possible!

If you are interested in learning more about Spark, please contact Shannon Mann-Butler, Program Director and one of UT’s Foster Care Liaisons, to learn more about how you can join or support the current and future Spark students both on and off campus.