“We’re better together.” That’s the motto of Spark in the Dark, a 501c3, dedicated to connecting community members who have urgent needs with neighbors willing to help.
The nonprofit launched in 2015 in Traverse City and has grown to include different local chapters, including a Lansing Area Spark in the Dark Facebook group. Together, the network has close to 23,000 members and is redefining the nonprofit model by utilizing technology and social media to make a real difference offline.
Executive Director and Founder of Spark in the Dark, Abagail McKiernan, said the group started because of her own personal hard time.
“I was really struggling with life,” McKiernan stated. “I realized I didn’t have a support network. I didn’t have anyone to lean on in my deepest of needs.”
McKiernan ended up joining a bible study group, where she met someone who was without a home, and couch-surfing for a year. Once she finally got an apartment, she did not have anything except her coat, which she used as a blanket while she slept in her car at night. Another stranger donated her items for her new apartment.
“The amount of hope and kindness that came from this stranger doing this kind deed brought this girl to tears,” McKiernan told ELi. “She said ‘my own friends and family have given up on me, no one is willing to help me. Why would you?’ And the woman responded with ‘well because I can, so I will.’”
The next morning, McKiernan woke up with the mission to recreate that moment as many times as she could.
She launched Spark in the Dark as a Facebook Group, based in Traverse City in 2015. Every year, the group continued to grow, gaining more members, and more local chapters. Last year, Spark joined the Facebook Community Accelerator, a six-month program and an accomplishment that McKiernan is proud of.
“We were one of 77 in the world, and one in 14 in North America,” she said. “It took a lot of funding so we can start Manistee, and Mount Pleasant groups. We were one of four out of 77 to receive additional funding from Facebook, which allowed us to create groups in Cadillac and Lansing.”
As of March 2022, the Lansing group has about 750 members, after launching in December 2021. Each local chapter covers about a 45-mile radius, says McKiernan.
The Williamston Sunrise Rotary reached out, inquiring about starting an East Lansing group and provided funding. McKiernan told ELi that the HELO Club also provided a few admin volunteers for the Lansing area chapter.
Although the group changes lives daily, and given the immediacy of social media, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis, McKiernan recalls a favorite story she witnessed.
“We had a woman two years ago, her caretaker came to the group and posted that she had run out of propane, and that her windows were frosting over because it was -25 degrees out that week in Traverse City. She had contacted people about assistance with energy companies, but it had taken weeks, and she finally ran out of propane and was literally at risk of freezing to death. Her caretaker posted it to the group. Within 45 minutes, everybody called the propane company, paid $40, paid her bill and the emergency delivery fee. She had propane by the end of the night, and $40 at a time, they literally saved her life. A whole group of strangers.”
McKiernan called the propane company an hour later, and an employee relayed that there were callers asking to donate money to other people’s accounts that were at risk of shut-offs.
Passing the kindness on is an integral part of the group’s mission. Providing a resource for immediate-need items, and things that might ‘fall through the cracks’ at other organizations is where Spark in the Dark truly shines, said McKiernan.
“It can be anything like you can’t get to the food pantry because you’re working two jobs, or you need baby formula, a ride to the doctor’s office, job postings/employment, etc,” McKiernan asserted. “Truly, just about anything you can think of, where there isn’t an immediate, quickly-done resource available.”
The Facebook groups are 100% volunteer-run and are individually given the ability to run in a way that’s best-suited for their community’s needs.
“An important part of all of the Spark in the Dark models is that it’s truly a collaboration between businesses, nonprofits, and community members. We don’t try to fill gaps that are already filled,” McKiernan said. “We can help people with the application process for care repair programs, connect members with the right people, and have a lot of creative giving ideas.”
Acting as a resource and connection is crucial because McKiernan and other members know how frustrating and embarrassing asking for help can be. Even with a wealth of knowledge available on the internet, it can be too overwhelming.
“As if you’re not stressed out enough that you have to go pick up these resources, try to look at everyone’s websites, you also have to get there. So if you don’t have a car, work multiple jobs, or have kids, it becomes really taxing,” she said.
Programs like the newly-launched Auto Repair Program with Bill Marsh, aims to provide assistance for safe transportation.
Looking toward the future, McKiernan hopes to grow each of the nonprofit’s five groups, and invites cities to reach out to start their own local chapter.
“The goal is to continue building in these cities, to create things like the Auto Repair program, and to partner with businesses that have a heart to help,” she said.