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Upper Valley Community Center Helps People Of All Abilities Find Their 'Spark'

Rebecca Sananes
John Fenley, one of the co-founders of the Spark Community Center, shows the logo he designed for the center. Fenley found his love for animation while working through his own disabilties.

About one in five people in Vermont are living with a disability. A community center in the Upper Valley is working to enrich the lives of "all people of differing abilities" by helping individuals discover their passions.

On a quiet, rainy afternoon before Halloween weekend, John Fenley waltzes into the Spark Community Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, swinging his multi-color cape and medieval-style cap.

He's one of the co-founders of center, whose mission is “to provide a welcoming place where the lives of all people of differing abilities are enriched through a sense of community.”

Fenley's large frame and bigger personality take up the warehouse room where Spark is located; it's filled with sofas, ping pong tables, computers and crafting materials.

Fenley had a rare brain tumor early in life, which left him legally blind, among other challenges. But through them, he found what he was really good at.

“Through my experience of dealing with those trials early on in my life, when I had to go through surgeries at 3 ,5, 8 and 10 [years old], I got to find passions that I have — like drawing when I was recovering,” he said, flipping through illustrations he’s made on his iPad. “I found this joy to the point where I still find a kick when I see someone with a Spark Community Center T-shirt, because it's like, 'Oh my God, that's my artwork!'"

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
Quinn Miller, a volunteer at the Spark Center, helps her friend Ryan Sinotte apply for jobs.

Fenley designed the Spark Center logo. He hopes that the center can encourage people with all needs to find their individual spark.

“That's what we strive to do here. Just look at the spark that they have. Find out what their joy is, what their passion is,” he said. “You just need to find a way to go that extra distance, and that's what we strive to do here.”

The center opened two and half years ago, and Fenley says about 30 people come in every day.

"That's what we strive to do here, just look at the spark that they have. Find out what their joy is, what their passion is." — John Fenley, Spark Community Center co-founder

The Spark Center is the only one of its kind in New Hampshire.

But it is one of a handful of social services for people with special needs in the area — Zack's Place in Woodstock, the Regional Autistic program in Hartford and Regional Tech Center, to name a few. The Special Needs Support Center is among them.

Every year, the Special Needs Support Center throws the Happenings Halloween Dance, bringing people of all abilities from across the region together.

At this year's dance, black cats, witches and football-players "monster mash," wheel and dance their way across the hall.

Brenda Walker acts as a personal mentor. She says she's learned as much from the people she works with as they have from her.

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
Brenda Walker is a mentor to Patrick Green. Green wears his favorite skunk costume the The Happenings Halloween Dance every year.

“I feel they offer gifts that the general population won't or can't give you,” Walker said between songs at the dance. “The thing is, it's not what you can't do, it's what you can do. And really that's the mindset Spark [Community Center] promotes.”

Vermont's three delegates have all signed off on The Disability Integration Act, a national bill which would bring better access to caretakers and organizations like Spark across the country.

Vermont is the only state to have all of its delegates championing the bill.

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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