SPARK Center (Supporting Parents and Resilient Kids)
The mission of the SPARK Center is to help Boston's highest-risk children to build brighter tomorrows. SPARK provides therapeutic, medically-specialized programs for children of all ages based on the philosophy that all children are resilient and able to take control of their futures. SPARK makes long-term investments in fragile children—helping them to believe in themselves, make healthy choices, cope with emotional problems, achieve in school and gain success as adults.
The SPARK Center is a model childcare program offering comprehensive, integrated, state-of-the-art services for children and families whose lives are affected by medical, emotional and/or behavioral challenges. The program serves Boston's highest-risk children, ages infant through 5 year olds: those living with complicated medical conditions (including neuro-developmental challenges, failure to thrive and HIV/AIDS); as well as children who are involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families due to significant family and social concerns (including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, adult substance abuse). A new group of fragile children now attend SPARK. These are 'very low birth weight' babies who were born too early and too small, and need our specialized care and attention.
Not surprisingly, most of the children at the SPARK Center live in poverty, with parents and caregivers who struggle daily to maintain the integrity of their families.
Located in the heart of Boston's urban community and serving approximately 50-60 children annually, the SPARK Center represents a unique and powerful collaboration between Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine, the Mass. Dept. of Early Education and Care, and several additional state and federal funders.
Each of these entities provides a unique contribution to SPARK's mission of helping children to build loving relationships, positive self-regard, and community belonging. At SPARK, children learn the skills and values to succeed in school and to develop productive and rewarding adult lives. Additionally, the SPARK Center offers parents and other caregivers the support, guidance and compassionate understanding that promote strength and stability in their parenting responsibilities.
The SPARK Center, originally known as the Children's AIDS Program, was founded by the Boston Public Health Commission in 1989 in response to the pediatric AIDS crisis in Boston. It was established in its present community site in 1992, and became part of Boston Medical Center (previously Boston City Hospital) in 1995. In September 2004, through a state mandated merger with another Boston Medical Center program (Family Development Center), we expanded our mission to serve children with other medical conditions, as well as children with traumatic histories due to caregiver disruptions, loss and/or suspected abuse/neglect. As a result of this expanded mission and an increase in children served, we have adopted a more inclusive name: The SPARK Center - Supporting Parents and Resilient Kids.
Built in 1992, our sunny, cheerful SPARK Center houses state-of-the-art infant care rooms, multiple toddler and preschool classrooms, private therapy and testing rooms, a nurse's office, a full kitchen, child-friendly spaces for specialists and administrative offices. Outside playground equipment is safe, colorful and age-appropriate, and the facility sits on a beautiful open lawn with ample play area and a lovely garden.
The SPARK Center represents a unique collaboration across many institutions. Through these affiliations, our broad range of expertise provides children with comprehensive care.
- Boston Medical Center (BMC)
- Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM)
- Boston Children's Hospital
- Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC)
- Boston Public Schools (BPS)
- Child Care Choices of Boston (CCCB)
- Center for Community Health, Education and Research (CCHER/REACH 2010)
- Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology (CMTP)
- Department of Education, Bureau of Nutrition (DOE)
- Department of Children and Families (DCF)
- Department of Early Education and Care (EEC)
- John Hancock Foundation
- Justice Resource Institute (JRI)
- Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP)
- Multicultural AIDS Project (MCAP)
- Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH)
What is SPARK?
The SPARK Center, the only program of its kind in New England, is a medically-therapeutic childcare facility and day program. Located in Mattapan, SPARK is a vital part of Boston's urban community, currently serving 50-60 children and families annually.
Who Are the Children?
SPARK serves children and families whose lives are affected by:
- Complex medical needs (i.e.: neurological complications, failure to thrive and HIV/AIDS)
- Emotional and behavioral challenges related to trauma (i.e.: child abuse, domestic violence and caregiver loss and separation)
- Developmental delays and special educational needs
SPARK is a hospital-sponsored pediatric program designed to provide specialized services in the context of traditional classroom environments. Children from birth to five years of age, and their families, benefit from an integrated model of care, including:
- Educational Services: early educational and developmental programming, early intervention, neuro-developmental and academic assessments, school planning and advocacy, early literacy programs, cultural enrichment.
- Medical Supports: daily medication administration, specialty therapies, medication adherence counseling, HIV prevention education and nutrition and fitness instruction.
- Mental Health Interventions: individual psychotherapy, family counseling, support groups, music and art therapy, social skills building, crisis intervention and psychiatric liaison.
Children at SPARK are nurtured throughout their formative years and are encouraged to develop into resilient youth. The SPARK Center imparts excellence in specialized services by upholding BMC's mission to provide exceptional care, without exception.
Our committed and diverse professional staff sets the standard in medically-specialized and psychotherapeutic treatment for fragile children. The team is comprised of educators, nurses, psychologists, social workers, interns, volunteers, senior administrators, and a nutrition coordinator. Consulting specialists include pediatricians, a neuropsychologist, music therapists and physical, occupational and speech therapists.
"SPARK is dedicated to the idea that all children, no matter how difficult their circumstances, can be resilient. No child should be denied access to state-of-the-art, therapeutic care because their needs are too complex or because they lack the ability to pay. SPARK reaches out to Boston's highest risk children and families offering a model of comprehensive care that includes children of all ages and fosters long-term relationships. We want every child to believe in bright possibilities for their future."
Please click on a staff name below to contact that individual directly via email.
Martha Vibbert, PhD
Operations Director / Events Coordinator
Childcare Manager / Special Needs Coordinator
Natalie Gracia, RN
Maryann Iwejuo, RN
Supervisor, Child Life & Early Education
Mental Health Counselor/Early Intervention Coordinator
The SPARK Center is a tan house with a reddish striped red roof located at 255 River Street in Mattapan, approximately 6 miles south of downtown Boston with free off-street parking. The SPARK Center can be reached by phone at 617.414.0502.
Download directions to the SPARK Center (PDF).
The SPARK Center is a tan house with a reddish striped red roof located at 255 River Street in Mattapan with free off-street parking. The SPARK Center can be reached by phone at 617.414.0502.
SPARK is located in a welcoming house in the heart of Boston's urban Mattapan neighborhood. The location is approximately six miles south of downtown Boston. SPARK is NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) certified. It was the first program in Massachusetts to have a certified outdoor, nature classroom.
Services provided at SPARK include: early education programming, therapeutic early intervention services (including music therapy), nursing care and case coordination, behavioral health services, family engagement, connection to other community services and nutritional guidance.
The early education classrooms are divided by chronological age and developmental level of the children. The ratio of children to teachers is extremely low, in order to provide needed, individualized programming. All teachers are EEC certified and experienced. In addition, classroom and clinical/counseling psychology interns, who are participating in SPARK's unique training programs, provide assistance and guidance to the teaching staff. The daily classroom schedule includes a nutritious breakfast and lunch, individual and small group activities, a meeting time, gross motor experiences and naptime. Programming is designed to encourage the development of creativity, social/emotional growth and age appropriate learning. New initiatives, such as STEM activities, are constantly incorporated into the program
Caregiver communication and participation is highly valued. Every day a brief report is sent home to each child's family. Teacher/care-giver conferences are scheduled three times a year to discuss each child's growth and development.
To make a referral, please contact:
Download directions to the SPARK Center (PDF).
The following are the most common diseases and conditions seen at SPARK:
- Cardiac Problems
- Developmental Delays
- Failure to Thrive
- Gastrostomy Tubes
- Genetic Syndromes
- Hearing and Vision Problems
- Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy
- Lung Disease/Oxygen Dependence
- Neurological Problems and Seizure Disorders
- Premature Birth and related complications
- SEN (Substance Exposed Neonates)
- Sickle Cell Anemia
- Social/Emotional and Behavioral Challenges
- Trauma (abuse and neglect, domestic violence and/or loss)
A team of pediatric RNs and mental health clinicians at SPARK oversees and coordinates the children’s daily medical and mental health care. Pediatricians and staff from various specialty clinics at Boston Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital provide consultation as needed. If you have questions, you may contact our nurse, Natalie Gracia, RN at 617.414.0506.
Useful Links to HIV/AIDS Resources On-Line
Refer a Patient
Because The SPARK Center is a unique program, children must 'qualify' or be referred from specific sources. We care for medically and emotionally involved children; therefore we take referrals from local hospitals, state agencies, and private individuals.
To make a referral, please contact:
Childcare Manager / Special Needs Coordinator
Operations Director / Events Coordinator
Research & Grant-Funded Projects
Members of The SPARK Center staff are actively engaged in both local and international research endeavors aimed at reducing the risk of HIV infection, enhancing children's adaptation to HIV/AIDS, and finding the most effective prevention and intervention programs to curb the spread of the disease, in particular among ethnic minority groups.
Included is a list of selected publications.
SPARK has established international partnerships with several organizations serving orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) affected by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
Therapeutic Childcare Program
Referrals are made to The SPARK Center from Boston Medical Center (BMC), Children's Hospital Boston, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), and other public and private referral sources.
The Intake Team is comprised of our education coordinator, our nurse, and our therapeutic coordinator. All referrals to The SPARK Center must complete a three part intake process:
- Initial referrals are made to Nursing Coordinator or Education Coordinator. An appointment is scheduled for the initial informational interview. On this day, parents/guardians meet with nursing and education staff. Parents provide necessary family and medical information and begin required SPARK paperwork. Parents also receive a Parent Manual and have a tour of the building. If the child is referred by DCF, the DCF worker must accompany the family to this initial intake meeting. The child must also be brought to the initial intake meeting. The child may receive a preliminary developmental assessment with our therapeutic coordinator (Ages and Stages or Denver), or spend time in a classroom. Before the family leaves, a follow-up meeting is scheduled.
- The referred child and parents/guardians attend a second intake meeting. At the second meeting, parent questions will be answered and any unfinished paperwork will be completed. At this time, the child will participate in a developmental assessment.
- Once all assessments and paperwork are complete, the Intake Team will meet to discuss appropriate placement. Each Intake Team member that was involved in the process will write a note to be placed in the child's chart.
If placement at SPARK is appropriate, the child's parent/guardian (and DCF worker) will be notified and given a start date. Placement in SPARK will begin with two half-days. A parent will remain at SPARK with child for the first half day; the child may attend alone on the second half-day.
Childcare Manager / Special Needs Coordinator
Operations Director / Events Coordinator
Research and Grant-Funded Projects
Members of The SPARK Center staff are actively engaged in both local and international research endeavors aimed at reducing the risk of HIV infection, enhancing children's adaptation to HIV/AIDS, and finding the most effective prevention and intervention programs to curb the spread of the disease, in particular among ethnic minority groups. Current research projects include the following:
Cultural and Psychosocial Influences on HIV-Risk Behaviors among Haitians. (2005-present). Principal Investigator: Gemima St. Louis, Ph.D.
The goals of this study are to (1) conduct an in-depth assessment of the cultural and psychosocial variables that are associated with HIV-risk behaviors, and (2) gather pilot data that will inform a larger-scale study on effective strategies to reduce HIV-related risk behaviors among Haitian individuals. In-depth, face-to-face interviews are being conducted with Haitian men and women (ages 18+) in order to assess their susceptibility to HIV, knowledge about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention, attitudes toward condom use, gender-role expectations, safe-sex negotiation skills, and risk-reduction behaviors. The findings from this study will shed light on the potential barriers to effective HIV prevention efforts and guide future research on ethnic minority and immigrant groups who are at high risk for HIV infection.
Living with HIV: Exploring the Experiences of Perinatally HIV-Infected Adolescents. (2005-2006). Investigators: Jennifer M. Hamilton, M.A., & Gemima St. Louis, Ph.D.
Perinatally HIV-infected adolescents (ages 13-15) and their primary caregivers were interviewed and case studies of their coping process were constructed using qualitative and quantitative data from semi-structured interviews. Results are reported on perinatally HIV-infected adolescents' HIV knowledge, psychological adjustment, self-competence and medication adherence and their guardians' psychological adjustment, HIV knowledge and assistance with medication adherence in an effort to understand each adolescent's process of coping with developmental challenges in the context of their HIV status. Findings revealed that medication adherence was most related to the developmental level of adolescents' understanding of HIV (i.e., their HIV knowledge) and the direct support provided by their guardians. Adolescents whose guardians provided behavioral monitoring and consistent verbal prompts were generally more successful in achieving adherence. A major theme that emerged from the narratives about disclosure stories was the almost complete silence about HIV that characterizes interactions between guardians and adolescents. Implications for treatment and suggestions for future research are discussed.
The HIV Prevention Project for Haitian Women. (2006-present). Project Director: Gemima St. Louis, Ph.D.
This community-based initiative focused on addressing the HIV prevention needs of immigrant Haitian women. The goals of the program are to adapt and implement the SISTA (Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS) Project, and evaluate its effectiveness in reducing HIV-risk behaviors among program participants. The project is funded in part by the Massachusetts AIDS Partnership, the National AIDS Fund and the Elton John Foundation; and the MAC AIDS Fund.
HIV/AIDS Prevention Among Haitian Women. (2000-2007). Project Director: Gemima St. Louis, Ph.D. In Collaboration with the Center for Community Health, Education & Research (CCHER) and The Metro Boston Haitian REACH 2010 Coalition, The SPARK Center has been providing culturally-oriented and gender-sensitive HIV prevention and education workshops to members of the Haitian community who reside in the Greater Boston Metropolitan area. This was a multi-site, statewide project funded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
SPARK has established international partnerships with several organizations serving orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) affected by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. These partnerships have been developed with the intent of providing a professional platform to facilitate the bilateral exchange of best practice approaches with vulnerable pediatric populations; culturally enrich staff at all professional levels; promote new ways of learning; as well as to integrate innovative, altruistic psychosocial and educational learning opportunities for the children at SPARK.
Recent examples of SPARK's international collaboration have included sending a SPARK staff member to help shape neurodevelopmental, psychotherapeutic and child development activities within a Pediatric Centre of Excellence for HIV Care in Zambia and partnering with the Namugongo Fund for Special Children (NFSC) in Uganda through fundraising efforts, joint research, knowledge exchange, hosting opportunities and collaborations.
Supervisor, Child Life and Early Education
The SPARK Center offers year round classroom internships for students in fields such as early childhood education, early childhood special education, child life, child development and health related fields. Most classroom internships are for undergraduate students. However, graduate students, especially those in the field of Child Life, can also be accommodated. Internships generally begin in September, January or late spring/summer. SPARK does NOT offer any sort of paid or experiential summer internships. The only summer option is to work in a classroom as a classroom intern, who is being supervised by his/her school for credit, as noted below.
As SPARK is part of Boston Medical Center, interns are required to follow BMC's orientation protocol. Schools sending classroom interns to SPARK are required to have an up-to-date contract (including liability insurance) with the legal department at BMC. The SPARK supervisor can assist in confirming this information with the legal department at BMC. If an updated or new contract is required, she can advise the appropriate person at the college/university regarding whom to contact at BMC to facilitate this process. When the contract is in place, potential interns can call the SPARK supervisor to discuss the program and, if appropriate, schedule an on-site interview. If the placement is agreed upon by both parties, the intern's contact information will be sent to the Human Resources Department at Boston Medical Center. The hospital will then contact the intern about its orientation procedures, including specific medical and human resources requirements. The process will also include an orientation session at the BMC campus. After successfully completing BMC's orientation, the intern will be ready to begin at SPARK. Upon beginning SPARK the intern will participate in a more specific orientation related to SPARK's procedures.
Each intern will be placed in an early childhood classroom. The interns will be oriented to the specific children, SPARK philosophy and classroom routine by the teachers in the classroom. Interns will be expected to develop written goals for the internship, based upon interests and school requirements. Formal supervision with each intern will be scheduled with the SPARK supervisor on a weekly basis. The SPARK supervisor will maintain contact with the intern's college/university supervisor throughout the internship.
SPARK greatly values the contributions of classroom interns, believing that both staff and interns offer each other valuable learning experiences and opportunities.
Program Associate, Education Intern/Volunteer Coordinator
SPARK gratefully welcomes volunteers! There are many ways that volunteers can make valuable contributions to our program, and SPARK treasures our rich history of partnership with community volunteers to build brighter futures for children.
We currently offer two ways to volunteer at SPARK:
- Direct Care Volunteers – assisting early childhood teachers with children in classrooms
- Non-Direct Care Volunteers – providing specialty services
Direct Care Volunteers are required to apply to the Volunteer Services Dept. at Boston Medical Center. The website gives information on requirements. Please note:
- Volunteers must be able to commit to SPARK for a three-month period. Exceptions of two-month periods for summer college volunteers may be considered.
- Volunteers must be at least 18 years old.
- Volunteers must submit three letters of reference, as well as detailed Immunization Records and a current TB screen.
- Once accepted, volunteers will be required to attend a scheduled orientation session at Boston Medical Center. They may also be required to complete a CORI application.
- After approval from the Volunteer Services Department at BMC, we would be happy to schedule a visit and tour of the SPARK Center.
Non-Direct Care Volunteers offer assistance in ways that do not involve contact with children. They should contact Barbara.Armandt@bmc.org. Time commitment requirements and orientation procedures will be arranged on a case-by-case basis. Opportunities available may include:
- Helping staff with special events and facility projects.
- Providing coverage at our reception desk and helping with light administrative tasks.
- Helping with facility projects – such as painting, yard work, gardening, small repairs.
- Fundraising activities such as a carwash or tag sale.
- Running small errands.
Practicum / Internship Program in Mental Health
At this time, we do not have openings in our Practicum or Internship Program for the 2016/2017 school year. Thank you for your interest in SPARK and please check back for 2017 potential updates.
Volunteer/Research Assistant Opportunities – Medical
At this time, we do not have openings for any Volunteer/Research Opportunities. Thank you anyway for your interest in SPARK.
Your tax-deductible donation enables the SPARK Center to continue serving as a model program for children whose problems exclude them from mainstream childcare settings.
To make a donation, please send a check made payable to:
The SPARK Center at BMC
255 River Street
Mattapan, MA 02126
Be sure to include your full name, address, and e-mail address if you wish, so we may thank you and acknowledge your tax-deductible contribution.
Donate Online: in the gift designation box, be sure to select "SPARK/Pediatrics".
Why Your Gift is Needed
The SPARK Center recently lost significant institutional (BMC) funds, but continues to rely on other BMC assistance. SPARK also relies on state and federal grant support, and the generosity of private foundations, individual donors and volunteers. Unfortunately, in recent years, federal budget cuts have weakened critical services to the neediest, including childcare and special services to children living with HIV/AIDS. Most children at SPARK live in poverty with parents and caregivers who struggle daily to maintain the integrity of their families.
The SPARK Center recognizes the importance of providing high quality medical and psychotherapeutic services free of charge to its unique population. Your contributions help us meet the individual needs of each SPARK child and maintain excellence in staff training, programming and all aspects of our special facilities. Undesignated donations for specialty teachers, general operating expenses, special equipment and classroom supplies are also greatly appreciated.
We do not have any events scheduled at this time, however, you may make a donation through the Donate Online link above, or check our Wish List for items we need. Thank you.
Volunteers and Interns
Volunteer assistance with children and with daily demands of program operation are always welcome. Internship and training opportunities offer another exciting way to get involved. For more information about volunteering or interning at SPARK, please call Barbara Armandt at 617.414.0504. Call us and come for a visit. Together we can meet the challenge!