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ETTAC Newsletter

Volume 4: Winter 2017

Goal of Transformational New SPARK Program: ‘Unlocking People’

Written by Eric Vreeland

Executive Director Mary Thom Adams sees East Tennessee Technology Access Center’s new SPARK program as a model.

It represents, in a nutshell, everything that ETTAC aims to do.

SPARK – an acronym for Starting People Along a Road to Knowledge – represents the promise and potential of what ETTAC is capable of doing side-by-side with its clients.

“We’re in the business of unlocking people,” Adams says simply. “SPARK does that. It’s brand new, but the transformations we’ve already seen with some people who have entered the program are truly remarkable.”



SPARK is a holistic, multi-faceted program that’s unique in many ways.

It’s a peer group that’s guided by multiple ETTAC staff members. SPARK meets four evenings a week, year-round. And it’s affordable for all families; the cost is $10 per client for each session they attend.

But those are just the starting-point basics. SPARK is more than the sum of its parts. Each group, each class, is different because SPARK members decide what the emphasis of the classes will be.

SPARK members experience a lot of different things.

They play games.

They talk as a peer group about their feelings – what’s happening in their lives that’s good, as well as what’s frustrating them.

They’ll do some gardening.

Or they’ll watch and discuss their take-aways from a movie. (Before Thanksgiving, one class watched the “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” classic. Snoopy’s fare was served – toast, popcorn and jelly beans. Group members were annoyed by Peppermint Patty rudely inviting herself over for a meal. And how come the “Peanuts” gang didn’t appreciate a dog who could make popcorn and toast?)

Or SPARK members will make art, and music.

“We’re not married to a rigid curriculum,” Adams says. “Each person participating in SPARK sets their own individual goals, and ETTAC staff tailors the programs to help the class members meet their goals.

“The aim is two-fold. First, SPARK members are setting and working toward their own goals. They’re not sitting at home; they’re with peers and rotating ETTAC staff.

“Second, we emphasize the connection to technology. That’s the key, especially with improving the ability to communicate. So SPARK helps people find their voice and express themselves while also improving their motor skills.”

SPARK is also a little surprising in who it serves – which families have come forward and requested programming.

“We’re serving a different population that what we’d anticipated,” Adams says. “We thought this would be attractive to teens. But we’re serving young adults in their 20s through their 40s.”

Class members run the gamut. Some have autism; others, Cerebral Palsy or brain trauma.

But it doesn’t really matter. As a group, SPARK members move forward; as individuals, ETTAC staff is mindful to help each member make progress toward his or her specific goals.

Another SPARK benefit: It’s offered on evenings. So it provides respite for parents raising multiple children or caring for elderly parents. One child can find enrichment at SPARK one, two or more times a week. The parent can find time for his or her other caregiving needs.



Lorrie Crockett, ETTAC’s assistive technology specialist and education technology services coordinator, tells a story about how ETTAC was able to help one SPARK member in particular.

The young person’s verbal communication skills were limited, but Crockett – a 20-year ETTAC veteran – thought there might be other ways to communicate. So she connected the SPARK member with a Proloquo2Go app and a tablet, and introduced the equipment during SPARK classes.

“People were speaking for this young person,” says Crockett. “That happens sometimes when there are verbal communication barriers. People undersell what someone can do.”

Armed with the tablet, it was as if a light bulb had gone off. The young person now is empowered to express preferences – or to communicate more effectively with family members or SPARK peers.

Another SPARK member enjoys the art classes and the movie discussions. But her mother sees a social benefit as well.

“I’ve been trying for a long time to find somebody who could be a friend, not just a teacher,” the mother said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this class – what a blessing.’”

Yet another parent of a SPARK member praised the peer group approach with tailored goal-setting.

“The camaraderie is great – the group is encouraging my son,” the parent said. “He feels more confident that he can do it. He’s accomplished everything they said he couldn’t do.”



Adams and Crockett say they are two ways you can help expand the SPARK program.

No. 1, share the good word. If you know someone who might benefit and grow by attending SPARK classes, let them know about it.

Contact Adams at or by calling 865-219-0130.

No. 2, scholarships to lower-income families and donations for supplies and enhanced cultural stimulants (think educational materials, art supplies and gardening tools) are welcome.

About the Author

Eric Vreeland, a former News Sentinel reporter and news editor, has long admired the work of ETTAC’s staff and volunteers. In January, he joined the group’s board of directors.