Spark Ventures offers opportunity around the globe

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In the spring of 2014, Lydia Gomez flew to Africa with the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Spark Ventures.

"I've never seen children running around without shoes, and homes that didn't have bathrooms or didn't have a roof," Gomez said.

Spark Ventures' philosophy: Travel is in our DNA. The organization, which offers dozens of "impact" travel opportunities for volunteers, started when Chicagoan Rich Johnson and two of his friends traveled to Africa nine years ago. They asked local leaders what the African people needed most.

"I thought he was going to say money. Instead he said, 'We need partners that would strengthen the work we're doing and help us stand on our own two feet,'" Johnson said.

Spark calls itself a business-driven philanthropy that creates jobs and produces locally-consumed goods that, in turn, help others. After a successful launch in Zambia, where a poultry farm now supports the needs of 350 school children, Spark decided it was time to expand into Latin America.

"My first impression was really how much they were doing with how little," Fred Cadena said.

Founded by eight women, Asociacion Las Tias runs two community centers that help 150 poor and endangered children in Leon, Nicaragua. Before Spark, fundraising was a daily challenge. Now, a honey bee farm helps support the children.

"Without Las Tas and the support they provided, they would probably have some days when they went hungry or at least days where they had one very small meal," Cadena said.

While the results are seen in classrooms in Nicaragua and Zambia, Chicago is where the business- raising money and recruiting people- takes place.
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