Building a Giving Generation
An SLP shows students with special needs how easy it is to help others who live far away but face similar challenges.
Helping others benefits everyone—helper and recipient. And that includes children with disabilities, who themselves receive extra support, says speech-language pathologist Jeanine Jesberg. That’s the thinking behind Project Little Spark (PLS), which she launched last year. PLS matches special education students in Chicago with their peers in the Caribbean.
A frequently quoted line from “The Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, inspired the name of Jesberg’s fledgling nonprofit and serves as its mission statement. The most common translation: “From a little spark may burst a mighty flame.” This founding philosophy is proven each time Jesberg visits another group of students and sees their eagerness to help collect and ship school supplies to other kids who face similar challenges.
“All of us really want to show kindness,” Jesberg says, “and most people just need an opportunity to know how.”
The SLP, grant writer, research administrator and nonprofit consultant worked for years to help other groups figure out the “how.” After running a private practice that employed about 15 other SLPs, Jesberg landed a research position at the University of Chicago’s Early Childhood Intervention Center. She used her business background to make her program financially profitable, while completing training in research administration and nonprofit management. Jesberg soon became the center’s director—the first SLP to hold the position—and eventually rose to executive director for the university’s Institute for Mind and Biology.
Igniting the spark
The job was going well, “but I felt myself searching for what I really wanted to do,” Jesberg says. “What can I contribute to the world?” After some research to find out what might be missing in the realm of supporting children with communication or other disorders, she decided to launch Project Little Spark. Jesberg left her full-time position, but she continues to consult for other organizations as well as perform research administration work for Northwestern University.
Because of her consulting and administration work, she doesn’t need to draw a salary from PLS. Instead, she devotes all grant money, fundraising efforts and individual donor support to pay for packing and shipping. The Chicago-based students and their teachers solicit and collect the new school supplies to fill those shipments.
When Jesberg talks to students in Chicago and explains about the project and who receives the donations, she’s continually stunned by the strong reactions. Many of these children don’t realize there are kids in other parts of the world with the same disabilities, she explains. “It really gives them an idea of the world being bigger than them and their families.”
Once, after giving a presentation and showing photos of children in the Caribbean, a student ran up to Jesberg excitedly making the sign for “same” over and over again. He’d noticed a child in a photo wearing the same hearing aids he wears and couldn’t wait to send her something.
In addition to soliciting donations, the students add drawings, letters, photos, videos and other personal items. Jesberg is especially touched when a student gives something of their own—usually something of significance—like a favorite superhero pencil case or a new box of sharp crayons.
Fanning the flame
Collections of new school supplies flow fairly easily. One anonymous donor regularly gives new books, including textbooks, classic tales and even a series about Caribbean children. Other donors drop off leftover items they can’t use but that recipient schools desperately need, like boxes of unused chalk. Students gather the supplies, count and sort all items, add personal messages and prepare boxes for shipping.
Jesberg lived in the Caribbean for a year and understands how things work “on island time.” This experience guides her as she organizes logistics for PLS. For example, international shipping remains one of the organization’s biggest expenses and most complex processes. However, thanks to her familiarity with island logistics, Jesberg knows how to make sure packages get to partner schools intact and without delay.
Some effects of organizing these student-to-student giving projects surprised Jesberg. She predicted local students would expand their communication skills as their worlds expanded. What she didn’t expect—or request—was for recipient schools to form ongoing relationships with their U.S. peers by sending back letters, drawings and photos.
In addition, teachers from the Chicago schools report improved behavior from the students involved with the project. When they tell Jesberg stories about random acts of playground helpfulness and frequent voluntary sharing, she is determined to continue fanning the flames of kindness ignited by Project Little Spark.
Finding Resources for Your Nonprofit
Jeanine Jesberg launched her own nonprofit, Project Little Spark, and she consults with other organizations to help them find funding, successfully apply for grants, and manage their organizations. She recently started a new initiative called The SHED Project, a Speech and Hearing Early Detection (SHED) clinic in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Below she shares her favorite resources to help get and keep an organization funded.
The Pollination Project Foundation exists solely to help people start their own nonprofits by making seed grants of $1,000 each. Jesberg used one to found Project Little Spark.
The Foundation Directory shares searchable details on more than 100,000 U.S. foundations, including their funding interest areas, to help organizations find a funding match.
Non-profit Guides provides grant-writing tools for nonprofit organizations including a sample grant proposal, inquiry letter, proposed budget, applications and links to grant-writing resources.
GrantProposals.com gives information on the elements of a proposal, general guidelines and steps to take before writing your proposal. The website also lists funding resources.
The Foundation Center developed a free online course on finding the right donor partners and submitting a successful funding proposal.
The Minnesota Council on Foundations offers a detailed outline on how to write a successful grant proposal.