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A Space for All 

The new Spark Center offers a place for residents of West Central and beyond to access technology, art and creative learning

click to enlarge Brooke Matson (left) and Valerie Nafe are directors at the new Spark Center, which is also now home to INK Artspace. - MEGHAN KIRK
  • Meghan Kirk
  • Brooke Matson (left) and Valerie Nafe are directors at the new Spark Center, which is also now home to INK Artspace.

It's the only place in town you'll find rock band practice, a library, computer coding workshops, poetry writing classes and a 3-D printing lab all under one roof.

Over the past month, the bookshelves have been stocked, a calendar of workshops has steadily filled up and a volunteer staff was prepped to warmly welcome the greater Spokane community to Spark Center in the Kendall Yards development. This weekend, the nonprofit hybrid — a literacy center plus a library plus a creative community learning center — hosts its grand opening to the public.

Spark's intent is hard to pin down. It's sort of a public library, because it offers a collection of books that members can check out, yet it's also unlike one because its collection is a fraction of the size of most public libraries. In the most basic definition, Spark is an ultramodern community center, offering a place where people can simply drop in for access to books, the Internet, classes and other resources. Its educational programs are centered around the arts, technology, music, writing, health and personal development, but nothing is locked in. Programming can essentially be anything Spark's volunteers want to share or teach, but also anything the neighborhood it serves — mainly the low-income West Central area — may be in need of, and that residents aren't getting elsewhere.

"It's a bit of an experiment, which is interesting," says Spark's Executive Director Valerie Nafé. "The original conversation [about Spark] started because of a lack of library resources in West Central. For some reason, people don't cross the [Monroe Street] bridge, and even though it's a bit on the outskirts of West Central, the programming will have a different feel from the library — innovative and edgy."

In the weeks leading up to its official debut, Spark has hosted a handful of creative sessions, including the Low-Tech Time Travel "playshop," a kids' workshop late last month that tasked students with creating a time travel machine using large appliance boxes, then writing stories about their adventures. Matthew, age 10, built a bright-blue Doctor Who TARDIS, and chronicled his journey back to three minutes before the Big Bang. The kids were also recorded reading their original adventures to share via Spark's SoundCloud page.

click to enlarge Greenstone funded the build-out of the space it's loaning Spark for 10 years. - MEGHAN KIRK
  • Meghan Kirk
  • Greenstone funded the build-out of the space it's loaning Spark for 10 years.

"The whole goal of playshops is that they're fun and the kids are learning," explains Spark's Program Director Brooke Matson, a published poet with a master's in educational leadership. "It's gift-wrapped, I like to say, and the skills are packaged so it's not 'Here's what you're going to learn today' to really activate their imaginations and give them a lot of choice in how they do something,"

While playshops are designed for youth, Spark's teen and adult sessions are called skillshops, and embody the same whimsical, freely creative approach to learning. Upcoming skillshops on the schedule for later this month include a Spokane River-themed poetry session with local poet Nance Van Winckel, and a C# computer coding workshop led by members of Spokane CREATE! makerspace. There's also a session for seniors, taught by high schoolers, on using social media.

"We're bringing together areas or subjects that aren't always brought together, or groups of people that don't always mix," Matson says.

Less formal and ongoing community programming to come as Spark establishes its niche could include morning storytime sessions and social reading events. The center is also the new home of the fledgling arts education nonprofit INK Artspace, which hosts its own workshops and classes there. Most workshops are free, but some adult-oriented skillshops in the future could have a small fee associated to pay for materials, or to help fund Spark's classes for kids so those remain free.

A fortuitous series of events beginning about a year ago quickly led to the inception of Spark Center. At the time, Jim Frank, CEO of Greenstone Homes, the developer of the Kendall Yards' neighborhood, was in talks with City Council President Ben Stuckart and Spokane Public Library Director Andrew Chanse about the need for better access to library services in West Central.

"It would be fantastic in my view if every neighborhood had a library within walking distance and you didn't have to go, say, five miles, and that is a little of what happened to West Central," Frank says. "So that was very intriguing to us as a company. At the same time, we felt like there was an opportunity to provide some resources to the neighborhood that weren't easily available, especially in a neighborhood like West Central."

A stakeholder group was created, and Greenstone donated two street-level retail spaces on Summit Parkway to house Spark for the next 10 years. The Greenstone Foundation funded the build-out and the purchase of Spark's technology equipment, Mac computers and furniture. It's also providing the salaries of Spark's two full-time directors, Nafé and Matson, for the nonprofit's first year and a half.

"As we've developed communities we've tried to understand the needs in the community, and to help build the social fabric within a community. I think this is just an extension of that same philosophy of trying to build strong communities," Frank says.

Spark's small collection of books were mostly donated from the personal collection of Spokane author Jess Walter (he's been a key leader of INK Artspace since it launched in 2014), and by Marina Drake, former owner of now-shuttered Monkeyboy Books.

Aside from its two full-time directors, Spark is run entirely by volunteers — about 45 staff the center each week in three-hour shifts. In keeping with its nontraditional approach as a community hub and learning center, Spark's volunteers are a collection of resources called the "Human Library." The intent of the quirky name is to encourage volunteers to showcase what they're passionate about, whether it be a personal passion, like gardening, or an element of their professional career. On Spark's website, the public can see when a volunteer with a particular expertise is staffing the center, and can come in to seek advice or support.

"My goal is that we have a reputation as the most fun place to volunteer," Matson remarks.

"People know when something is good," Nafé adds. "This is a different way of thinking and a different way of volunteering, but I think intrinsically, people know we'll equalize and give people equal opportunities." ♦

Spark Center Grand Opening • Sat, Aug. 15, from noon-6 pm • Free • Spark Center • 1214 W. Summit Pkwy. • sparkwestcentral.org

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