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Joe Sparksman Seeks To Be Catalyst For Change

Joe Sparksman’s spirit of community service and mentorship was sparked as a young man. The flames were stoked in college and continue to power him now.

His background in working with at-risk young men in the Black community throughout the south spurred him to create the group Men of Change after returning to Wheeling. In a short while, that group’s contributions have grown to touch all corners of the Ohio Valley community.

Sparksman has wanted to give back to others since he was a child. In his youth, he cared for a family member with special needs, and his love for helping those around him grew from there.

He worked as a mentor and summer camp counselor through his teenage years and into his time at James Madison University.

At JMU, one of Sparksman’s senior projects was to develop a community organization, so he helped start the Boys and Girls Club in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“That developed even more my passion in working with kids,” he said. “That was a big project, working with the city, working with stakeholders just to get them all involved and pitch the idea and to get out and recruit the schools and community to come to the center.”

From there, he spent time in Raleigh, North Carolina working in community action initiatives, getting young Black men back on track in their lives. He returned to Wheeling to help care for his father in his last years, and now serves as a case manager for Catholic Charities.

Sparksman wanted to bring his background and expertise in community service back to his birthplace, and he said two things really motivated him to do so. His cousin, Ron Scott, already was working in the community and he wanted to collaborate with him.

And he also watched what unfolded after the murder of George Floyd, where a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, ultimately was convicted on charges including second-degree murder.

“I think it was the first time the world got to see what unarmed Black men were going through,” Sparksman said. “It was put out front for everyone to see. I thought about, if something like that were to happen in this area, what would be the response?

“I know a lot of young people got fired up about it and they didn’t know how to channel their anger,” he continued. “I didn’t want there to be rioting and burning stuff. So I thought, let’s put something in place where we can be a voice and provide leadership in the community, where they can channel that anger and frustration into something positive.”

Thus, Men of Change was born, with him as president. It started as a group whose mission it was to listen to the concerns of the community, especially the Ohio Valley’s minority community. That mission evolved very quickly.

The group took an active role in improving and enhancing lives. It organized a back-to-school giveaway, handing out 150 free backpacks so children would be prepared for the school year. It held a back-to-school block party to bid farewell to summer vacation and give kids a chance for a fun time.

It organized bicycle rides along the Ohio River to promote physical fitness for people from all neighborhoods and backgrounds. It got together with the Wheeling Police Department, Ziegenfelder Company and several other community groups to put on “Cops, Pops and Community” at Wheeling’s Heritage Port.

That collaboration, Sparksman said, was very important.

“Developing those partnerships has been what moves us forward,” he said. “That was something that was big that we really wanted to do because of the negative stigma with law enforcement in the Black community.”

What those partnerships also do, Sparksman said, is help expand the impact of Men of Change outside of one part of the Ohio Valley community. He wants the group to transcend boundaries.

“We don’t want to appear that we’re only working in the Black community,” he said. “We understand that, in order for this community to thrive, we need everybody. So one of the things we look for when we do our events is that we invite everyone and hope all the communities come, because that creates a dialogue and you start to develop an understanding with one another.”

Still, Sparksman would like he and Men of Change to continue uplifting and empowering the minority community of the Ohio Valley, to help them achieve the same goals as others. Men of Change currently is sponsoring a financial empowerment series that helps young people gain a better understanding of their taxes, their savings and their retirement.

Sparksman has plans for the group to begin mentoring exercises, gathering children to help them grow to become responsible adults and members of their community. He wants to help minority business owners, amplify their message and help them get their products to more people. He also wants to help those in the Black community interested in public office navigate the waters of politics.

“There’s still much more to do,” he said. “We’re still passionate. We’re feeling the community and getting input from the community as to what they need. We want to be that resource and that link to the community and be that voice for the community when they’re something they’re frustrated with.”