By Ashlee Garrison Russell
During Jarred Bryan Sparks’ too-brief life, his parents did whatever they could to help him deal with the challenges of autism. After his death in an accident in 2011 at age 19, Amy and Rob Sparks focused on finding ways to help other families with children with autism. Last fall, in downtown Fayetteville, they opened a K-6 school for children with autism. It’s called The School of Hope and it’s offering its students just that – hope.
“The School of Hope has been an answered prayer for my family and I,” wrote the parent of one student at the school. “My children are learning in a safe and genuinely loving, patience-filled environment, where everybody is somebody. Definitely a hidden gem that we are blessed to have found.”
The school grew out of the Jarred Bryan Sparks Foundation, which the Sparks family created in 2012 to help families affected by autism. The foundation has held fundraising efforts, free workshops for families, festivals specially designed for children with disabilities and more. Amy Sparks says she has thoroughly enjoyed meeting children in the community and helping their parents navigate their legal rights and find services available for their children. She says she and Rob love holding festivals that highlight the incredible talents of these amazing children and are always satisfied to see the smiling faces that result from their efforts. At foundation events, families can enjoy each other in a setting that’s comfortable for their children and that provides a sense of community and support. They don’t have to feel different.
But Amy Sparks, a retired Cumberland County Schools teacher, always hoped to do even more. She not only wanted children with autism and their families to have recreational places to go recreationally, she wanted those children to have a school where they could go to learn, thrive and receive an education that would support them and their families and prepare them for life beyond the classroom. It would be called “The School of Hope” and Amy Sparks knew she would be both its principal and a teacher. In 2013, she put together a school board and filed the necessary paperwork and the School of Hope was on its way to becoming a reality.
It was not an easy road. There were legal complications associated with opening a school for students with special needs, money was needed to lease a building and hire faculty and staff, a curriculum had to be adopted and so on. But in August of 2017, the School of Hope opened. At the grand opening celebration, Amy Sparks danced with her students, parents laughed and children smiled.
Since then, Amy Sparks says her students have made more gains in a handful of months than they did over years in public schools. She credits her teachers and parent support. “It is just beautiful to see the changes in the lives of these children,” she said.
The school has also been a source of healing for the Sparks family. “The school was an opportunity to turn a tragic occurrence into something wonderful,” said Kelsey Sarracco, Jarred’s sister. “It’s something that Jarred would have wanted: a chance to help other children with autism. This school is meant to give families hope and a chance to believe that anything is possible. It was an honor to be Jarred’s sister and I pray that all families see his love, understanding and compassion through the work being done at the school.”
Amy Sparks said the school’s success is “not only about what we have done for them, but what they have done for us.” She said her husband’s support and quiet behind-the-scenes work have been essential to the school’s success. She’s also grateful for the support of the rest of her family, including Kelsey and Vin Sarracco and her son, Dylan Sparks, and her school board.
“A dream has come true,” Amy said. “With God, nothing is impossible.”
Meanwhile, the person to whom the school owes its existence is never forgotten.
“I can feel Jarred every day,” Amy Sparks said. “Even my students ask about him and tell me that he’s watching us from heaven.”
The School of Hope accepts applications on an ongoing basis for this school year and has begun accepting them for the 2018-2019 school year. There are opportunities for financial aid, including the Opportunity Scholarship. Applications for the Opportunity Scholarship were due February 1st but late applications were accepted last year. Please visit the website (www.theschoolofhope.net) or call the school at 910-339-5683 for more information.
Ashley Garrison Russell is a member of the board at The School of Hope.