BY ATHENA FOSLER-BRAZIL
Traipsing through the brush and along trails last spring, the Cachagua Clean Up Crew, consisting of a number of Carmel Valley resident students, picks up trash in areas of neighborhoods they identified to be most polluted.
Accompanied by their mentors, CUSD board elect Tess Arthur and Carmel Valley High School teacher Brenda Buran, the project is one that was pitched by students to Spero Challenge, a program first put into action at Valley High last school year and has expanded its reach since the Cachagua Clean Up Crew first trucked two full loads of trash out of Cachagua.
Working with schools all over the Peninsula, Spero provides funding for students with community service ideas and goals, pairing them with mentors and helping them get volunteers. Created by Arthur, Brian Bajari, and John Guido in spring 2018, Spero Challenge is a nonprofit organization that facilitates student-led community service projects on the Monterey Peninsula.
“The goal of Spero Challenge is to better our community by empowering students to identify community challenges, propose unique solutions, create a business plan, gather resources and launch this targeted program,” says CEO Bajari, a CHS parent, philanthropist and active member in the Carmel community, who has spent time doing nonprofit work in East Africa and was inspired by the young people in communities he worked in, specifically how dedicated they were to community service and how long-lasting the change was. “We live in an entirely different context…and I believe that when students have the inspiration to think outside of the conventional box of community service they will come up with remarkable solutions.”
When Bajari reconnected with high school friend Guido, they began brainstorming ways to effect change in the Monterey Bay area through student-led service. Arthur, who was elected last week for the CUSD school board, also got involved and became a member of the team that founded Spero Challenge.
Spero sets up workshops at schools for students who are particularly interested in community service. Once they attend, students can submit project applications to Spero, which evaluates the projected budget and allocates funds accordingly. Students then launch their service projects, taking charge of their program and carrying the responsibility of turning their ideas into actions.
“The idea is that if you empower kids to identify and address issues in their community, it’s going to be a lot more effective than just asking them to volunteer,” says CHS senior and Spero intern Annalise Krueger.
Spero Challenge already has several projects running across the Monterey Peninsula, including a number of projects in the works at CHS. Senior Zeh Szestowicki is working with a small group of students to start a bi-monthly mental health check pop-up with the help of Spero. Szestowicki hopes to get a licensed therapist to oversee the project and employ the help of Cal State Monterey Bay students who are studying psychology. She and her team hope to start the pop-up at CHS and then move it to Monterey using public spaces so that people who would otherwise not have access to mental health resources are able to attend the events.
Zeh’s project is only one of a number getting started at CHS: seniors Olive De Luca and Aaron Georis are doing a project that collects donations of musical instruments to give to schools without music programs; seniors Lexie Sakoda and Ishika Patel are starting a project called Mentor Up, which sends students into local elderly facilities to provide companionship to a demographic of people sometimes lacking social interaction and exposure to youth.
“Our immediate goal is 100 student-led projects for 2019, and we’re only accepting 100 projects total for all of Monterey County,” says Bajari of the future goals for Spero Challenge.
As Spero Challenge expands, the community will feel the ripple effect of the student-led programs. Already, students understand the gravity of the opportunities Spero provides. As Szestowicki says, “[Spero] just really made positive change more tangible for me and a lot of other students.”