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The sound of live music joined the clang of free weights in the gym and the echoing shouts of basketball players on the courts at NYA Sports & Fitness Center one recent afternoon. Local musician Joe Proc was leading a group of young local players preparing to showcase their talents at a WestConn basketball game representing the Avielle Foundation’s newest initiative — the Spark Project.
Dr Jeremy Richman and his wife Jennifer Hensel established the Avielle Foundation to honor the memory of their daughter who was among the 20 young victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy which also took the lives of six of Avielle’s educators.
“The Avielle Foundation is committed to preventing violence and building compassion through neuroscience research, community engagement and education,” Dr Richman told The Newtown Bee, as he gathered with student participants and NYA staffer Cody Foss, who is overseeing the program rollout at the local recreation facility.
Dr Richman said the foundation has identified a number of risk factors that not only lead individuals to engage in violent behaviors, but also to becoming victims of violence. At the same time, he said there are a number of protective factors that can be reinforced through social and emotional learning and its outcome behaviors.
“The degree that you have this social emotional intelligence, and the mastery of it, really predicts success in life,” Dr Richman said. “So we wanted to start working with children to engender these social emotional skill sets early-on, which we’re calling the Spark Project.”
Under the Spark umbrella, the Avielle Foundation is supporting mental health first aid training, along with a number of educational lectures. The flagship initiative of Spark is the creation of this after school program serving the Reed Intermediate School students in fifth and sixth grade.
Mr Foss said the idea behind the Spark Project dates back about 18 months, and has since developed strategic partnerships with NYA, Ben’s Lighthouse, the Resiliency Center of Newtown, and the Life Is Good Kids Foundation. The Life Is Good connection was delivered through the relationship NYA Executive Director Nick Hoffman previously had with the Life Is Good movement.
“Life Is Good has probably been the best connection we’ve made to make Spark an extremely successful and sustainable project,” Mr Foss said. “They have the ability to train our staff in social emotional learning strategies.”
Dr Richman said the Newtown School District is already teaching social emotional learning (SEL) skills.
“What we wanted to do was to take these skills from the classroom, and model them for our kids so they really become engendered and has maximum benefit for these kids in the world at large,” he said.
The Life Is Good team was a critical component of the Spark launch, Dr Richman explained, because they were already well practiced at teaching and bringing SEL into daily practice.
“We didn’t have to reinvent it — we just layered their operating system over this program that Cody thought up,” he added. “He found new ways to expose children to new interests and new things that they probably wouldn’t try on their own to get them to explore, build their emotional intelligence and their comfort level.”
So how does the program work?
“We try to screen fifth and sixth graders to find out their interests. We have arts, music, recreational wellness, and fitness,” Mr Foss said. “We want them to try and stretch in three of the four electives. And we realize that some of these kids may be uncomfortable, or didn’t do well in these situations before. If we create an environment where these kids are willing to try things, then we have a unique opportunity to change perception about what arts may mean, or fitness may mean to a child.”
Mr Foss pointed to Mr Proc, who was working with the youths preparing for the WestConn performance of the national anthem before the game, as well as other Spark kids who performed with the WestConn cheer squad. The culmination of their involvement was a half-time activity involving all young people in attendance.
“Joe relates to kids in ways most adults don’t. He’s working with them at all levels of musical skills,” he said.
Dr Richman said that to help expand the rollout of Spark beyond Newtown, he is seeking educational and corporate sponsorships to cover the cost of Spark training in other communities.
“We’re finding in a lot of the major educational and corporate circles, their best leaders are those who are emotionally intelligent,” he said. “People who know how to motivate, lead, inspire, and get along with people of different perspectives. And that’s what we want to engender here with the Spark Project and is very much in the wheelhouse of the Avielle Foundation. These are going to be your next generation of future leaders.”
As it gains momentum in Newtown, Dr Richman said the Spark team, under the executive leadership of Rob Accomando, will design and implement an evidence-based SEL assessment study, which will establish the baseline and measure SEL skill development at specific intervals over time.
He said these results will be compared to a similar community not engaged in such training to :objectively determine the efficacy of our efforts and inform the evolution of our approach moving forward.”
Finally, the Spark team will also develop a comprehensive, step-by-step guide for any community that is inspired by Spark and will offer all of its experience, know-how, and support so that they may succeed in developing SEL and compassion skills in their communities as well.
To learn more, visit aviellefoundation.org and click on the Spark box.