Ten tenacious years for The Sprout Fund. So what's next?

Marty Levine checks in with Sprout's co-founders about plans for its second decade, including the expansion of the Spark program to serve the entire Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network.

Pop City reporter Marty Levine sat down with Sprout co-founders Cathy Lewis Long and Matt Hannigan to learn more about Sprout’s plans for its second decade, including the expansion of the Spark program to serve the entire Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network:

To understand the impact of Spark — the three-year-old program of The Sprout Fund that has brought early childhood educators together with technology and new media experts to create 30 inventive projects in the region — you’ve got to realize the impact of the Sprout Fund, which has seeded more than 480 one-of-a-kind local community and arts projects for a decade now.

Sprout and Spark have always been about improving the life of this region. But Sprout began with a mandate to focus on programs for young professionals, whereas Spark has ensured that “our program serves a much broader group,” says Hannigan – those who “live, work, play and raise a family” here.

The impact shows in the types of projects Spark funds, and in the way it helps grant recipients before, during and after the process. Message from Me, for instance, which was devised by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, uses a specially constructed interface to let some of the youngest children in pre-school, day-care and home-care programs send a text or email to their parents or guardians about what they are doing during the day. It makes obsolete the usual report children give parents about their day away – “What did you do?” “Nothing.”

Spark’s initial $15,000 has since led to a $196,600 grant from the PNC Foundation.

Spark, says Message’s Emily Hamner, “really allowed us to try out the idea. I don’t think we would have gotten this larger grant if it hadn’t been for the first grant. They definitely made it possible” – even before funding, she adds, when Spark personnel helped focus Message’s proposal and make it a worthwhile effort.

“The younger kids don’t really have a good idea of what it means to send a message to someone who isn’t there,” says Hamner. “But they’re still really excited. And the parents I talked to … really enjoyed getting the message.”

Spark, she concludes, ” gave us a lot of freedom to do what we had envisioned.” From an initial Message kiosk at CMU’s Children’s School, Message is about to expand to 30 kiosks in 13 children’s facilities in local low-income areas.

Published January 18, 2012