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Igniting the Spirit for Change

Ignite Baltimore grant winners Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite - Steve Ruark
Ignite Baltimore grant winners Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite - Steve Ruark

"I'm a homeless resident of Baltimore City who lived in a shelter until last week," Mark Schuman began as he stood on stage Thursday night at the Walters Art Museum. Schuman was there accepting an Ignition Grant, a new grant program announced by Ignite Baltimore, an event where people take the stage and have five minutes and 20 slides to share information on a variety of topics with the audience.

Started in 2006 in Seattle, Washington, the Ignite concept made its way to Baltimore in October 2008 before reaching places like Vancouver, British Columbia and Monterrey, Mexico. According to the global Ignite website, the idea is to "enlighten us, but make it quick." The series has been a success in Baltimore from the start -- in fact, all five of the Ignite Baltimore events have sold out, despite the group's decision to move it from the Windup Space to the much larger auditorium at the Walter's.

Reserved seating

According to Mike Subelsky, co-founder and co-organizer of Ignite Baltimore, seating was what led to idea for the Ignition Grant. The group decided if they charged a nominal fee for tickets, they could raise enough money to use it to further their mission of raising awareness, starting conversations, and inspiring action. "We wanted to find a way to leverage the capital from charging $5 per ticket to do something really good," he says.

Co-organizer Heather Sarkissian brought the idea of a grant to the table based on her experience as a grant recipient when she was in the Peace Corp. "When I won one of those grants I was really motivated by how having the money really helped me with my idea," she says. "People have a lot of great ideas and they just need a little bit of cash and spotlight to get started."

The group announced the grant and received about a dozen 650-word applications. A committee of judges reviewed the applications looking at their innovation and creativity, feasibility and effective use of funds, sustainability, and whether or not they had access to other resources or funds to support their idea. Though the original plan was to select just one grant winner, Sarkissian says at the end of the process they had a tie. Fortunately, the committee determined that they had enough funds to support both ideas.

Breaking down stereotypes

Schuman's will us his $700 grant to record interviews with roughly 50 people, most of whom are homeless, in order to increase conversation, awareness, and understanding about the experience of homelessness. The money will be used to purchase a video camera, audio recorder as well as $5 food cards to use as incentives for the interviews.

"I've been wanting to do a project like this but didn't have the money to do it," he says. "I want to show the discrepancy between the perception and the reality of what homelessness is."

Schuman knows both the terrors of homelessness as well as the camaraderie that can come from a life lived on the streets. He spent about a year living on the street and in shelters. While homeless, he was robbed and put in the hospital before meeting a group of other people who were homeless with whom he formed an informal group so they could support one another.

"I started meeting people and built up this group of friends and we kind of stuck together. Through that I realized the variety of people who are homeless. I've met people who have Ph.Ds, lawyers, and doctors who live in shelters. It's not the people you see laying in the gutter bumming money to get drunk. The average homeless person is someone trying to work their way up."

Schuman plans to put the videos of his interview on a website and hopes they will open the dialogue about homelessness. He says he already has about 10 people lined up for interviews including one man who lives in a tent and a few people who have worked their way out of homelessness and are rebuilding their lives. He hopes the success stories of people who have overcome homelessness will inspire others and help them realize that there is still hope. "There are a lot of things in your way, but there are bridges and ladders you can use to get over the hurdles," he explains.

Exposing the road less traveled

Robert Wray, a Fells Point resident and entrepreneur, earned the second Ignition Grant. He hopes to increase usage, knowledge, and appreciation of the parks and trails in the Baltimore area with his grant. Like Schuman, Wray's project relies on videos and a website to help accomplish his goal. With a camera attached to his bike Wray plans film the Gwynns Falls trail, and at least two other city trails, to create accelerated videos with map overlays and elevation information.

Wray says he enjoys biking � he bikes about 100 miles a week when the weather is nice � and wishes more people took advantage of the parks and trails in Baltimore. "The trails are very underutilized, and the city has spent a lot of money on them," he says. "The parks weren't built for me, they were built for the citizens of Baltimore and people who visit the city."

Wray says he hopes that people who experience a park or trail through his five minute videos will get off their couch and check out the trails firsthand. "People should be outside enjoying things more."

Subelsky says that both grant recipients will be speakers at a future Ignite Baltimore event to share their experience. "I really can't wait to see six months from now when the winners have to come back. That's the transparency of this. They have to come back and talk about what they did and I'm really excited about that."

The grant program will continue in the future, says Sarkissian, who is looking forward to not only hearing the ideas of future grant applicants but also documenting the steps that were taken to setup the grant so they can be shared with the global Ignite office for other Ignite programs to use as well. "I hope people hear about this and realize they also have the ability to affect change and take action on their ideas. It can be so easy to make things happen."

A graduate of both Towson University and University of Baltimore, Nicole Jovel lived in the Baltimore area for nine years. She writes for both corporate clients and local and regional publications.

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1. Ignite Baltimore grant winners Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite Baltimore 5
2. Ignite Baltimore
3. Mark Schuman
4. Mark Schuman
5. Mark Schuman
6. Robert Wray at Ignite
7. Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite
8. Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite
9. Robert Wray and Mark Schuman at Ignite

Photos by Steve Ruark

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