SPARK gets timely shot in arm

by Jim Boyle
One of the local support systems for families of children with special needs, particularly parents of children with autism spectrum disorders has had its funding pulled from it.

NW S.P.A.R.K. had been receiving grants from Sherburne County’s Help Me Grow program, but the Minnesota Department of Education has changed the way these grants can be allocated. This has left the outreach for families in the northwestern suburbs in the lurch.

National Autism Awareness Month, however, is breathing new life into the organization for Special Parents and Remarkable Kids (S.P.A.R.K.).

Autism Awareness pins being sold at an Anoka business are selling like hotcakes at a pancake breakfast. Lillians, billed as the hippest shop in downtown Anoka, is owned by Jenny Thompson of Elk River.

It was her director of guest relations, Susan Bunnell, a parent of an autistic child, who suggested the fund raiser.

Eight-year-old Jacob Bunnell with his mom Susan Bunnell

The pins, featuring the signature puzzle piece associated with autism, sell for $3. Two-thirds of that money goes to S.P.A.R.K.

Bunnell, the mother of three including an 8-year-old boy with autism, is not able to attend the support group meetings held by NW S.P.A.R.K. However, she still benefits immensely from the organization’s efforts, Web site and Facebook page.

“I’m a huge supporter of the organization and its message,” she said.

The group meets from 7 to 9 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month at Handke. The group has 90 families it serves and meetings attract an average of a dozen or so parents. Another 40 to 50 therapists and educators are on the group’s mailing list.

“We feed off each other,” Bunnell said.

The group, whose mission is to educate, advocate and inspire, puts on a variety of educational events featuring guest speakers. But the group hopes to expand beyond support groups for parents of children with autism to include support groups for families of children with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

“In these tough economic times we were questioning where else to look for funds to support the NW S.P.A.R.K. group,” said Christin Mielke, the co-founder of the local group. “We feel blessed to have discovered another option within a few days of receiving final word regarding the loss of our funding.”

Lillians has 38 shops across several states, and the pins have been so popular there is already talk of making the fund raiser annual.

NW S.P.A.R.K. will still need to find additional funding sources to keep moving forward, but its future is not nearly as bleak as once feared.

Lillians is open the second Thursday through Sunday of each month. The store sells handbags, wallets, totes, jewelry, sunglasses, dresses, tops, jackets and more. In addition to being open April 14–17, it will also be open for Anoka Diva Days April 28 to 30. Call 763-323-4045 for specific hours.

For more information on Lillians of Anoka, go to

For more information on NW S.P.A.R.K. go to

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