Throughout its 109-year history, the University of West Georgia has been committed to the success and well being of the West Georgia community through significant economic, educational, social, and cultural contributions. One of the essential benefits UWG offers is providing therapeutic programs for young people. Parents of at-risk teens looking for an alternative to traditional behavior modification and treatment programs can receive assistance through the mentoring efforts of the students and faculty of UWG through the SPARK program.


A group of SPARK youth and UWG studentsDr. Thomas Peterson, a professor in UWG’s College of Education, works with the Carroll and Coweta County Juvenile court systems to offer a unique mentoring approach that focuses on forming deep connections over behavioral modification strategies.


“Our mission literally is just to inspire hope. That’s it,” Dr. Peterson said. “We are not there to change their behavior like a lot of programs that focus on external behavior. [Their thought processes] change from the inside out, instead of outside in. We see our youth as sacred.”


The faculty and staff of UWG understand that the future of the university and the people of West Georgia are inextricably linked. SPARK evolved out of a meaningful conversation between Dr. Peterson and the late Judge Dan Camp about that future.


“I was surprised and saddened when [Judge Camp] told countless stories of the young people who stood before him in court,” Dr. Peterson said. “He described many of the teens as having ‘dead eyes’ […] the teens seemed to have no direction, no goals.”


With inspiration from that compelling talk and interest in community service from students in Dr. Peterson’s “Investigating Contemporary Critical Issues in Education” class, a new viable service project was born. Since 2009, SPARK has provided support to over 100 youth and their families in two counties, Carroll and Newnan. SPARK gives at- risk youths ages 13 through 18 who have had at least one juvenile court appearance a chance to experience positive peer intervention.


“When I first got [to SPARK], I didn’t know if I wanted to be there or not,” youth Zana Montgomery said. “After the first night, I liked it because we talked to each other and we were active. [One of the college students], Nicky, she just listened and gave me good advice. SPARK helped me with my change.”


SPARK’s goal is to inspire positivity in troubled teens with untraditional methods and activities. SPARK combines hands-on activities like art and sculpting, West African drumming, and learning opportunities through inspirational speakers. Between weekly meetings, UWG students keep in contact with the youth to continue to build relationships. SPARK fosters an entertaining and open environment to promote a holistic connection between participants. Connecting at-risk teens with future educators benefits both the teens and the learning process of college students.


“Those students that are on the fringe are going to be [new teachers’] worst nightmares,” Dr. Peterson said. “One of the most stressful things for teachers is how to relate to these kids. We have a gem here because my college students who are going through this program are not going to be afraid of these kids, and they are going to know so much more about how to connect with them then other teachers.”


Nearly 300 UWG students have helped mentor SPARK youth and have developed hands on experience and social skills that they can utilize in the classroom. In addition, education majors receive credit for required observation hours.


“My participation in the program gave me new insights as to how educators should treat and better understand at-risk youth,” student mentor Taylor Smith said. “Often these kids are seen as trouble makers in class, when really they are trying their best to cope with their present situation.”


Michael A. Frazier, assistant director of SPARK and current UWG psychology Ph.D. student, has received requests from youth and mentors to extend the program’s length because they want to continue to grow the positive relationships that they have started.


“The COSMOS [life-story sharing method] removes the power dynamics between adult to youth, and helps to foster a mutuality and cultivates a reciprocal relationship between youth and university students. They begin to see and treat each other equally as human beings,” Michael said.


SPARK has helped numerous students to turn their lives in more beneficial directions. Dr. Peterson and his student mentors should be commended for their tireless dedication to this essential program.


“We see a change in all of the youth, and more than just a spark,” Dr. Peterson said.


SPARK relies on donations for all of its funding. If you would like to help with donations or other assistance to the SPARK program, please contact Dr. Peterson at

Posted on June 10, 2015