TRAVERSE CITY — Abagail Byar ordered a coffeehouse drink, then paid for the stranger's behind her.
In just 10 short years, the Traverse City transplant went from teen mom to responsible adult determined to give back and pay it forward. Now she’s a dynamic force for community good through her new Facebook page group, Spark in the Dark TC, and weekly volunteer events featuring craft projects that benefit area charities.
Byar started the group in late fall to make it easy and attractive for people to volunteer — without the long application and training process and extensive time commitment that can turn off potential volunteers. The page is an outlet to connect people with needs — from a cellphone, to furniture, to clothing — with people and organizations that want to help. It operates like a kind of resale page except everything is free and only for those in need.
“I started with 52 people,” said Byar, 27. “When I woke up the first day after creating it, there were 350 members.” Now the page boasts 1,200 members who have helped hundreds of people across the region.
A recent example involved a Kalkaska family that needed clothing after losing their home in a fire. One Spark member had clothes to give, another offered to deliver them.
“It happens regularly and it’s the best thing ever,” said Byar, of the chain reaction a need can trigger.
The group is so successful that Byar started weekly events during which volunteers can learn different crafts or "life skills" and then donate their finished projects to charities she chooses. Past projects include dog toys for shelter pets, 'Portacath' pillows for cancer patients, "Welcome Home" kits for homeless people moving into permanent housing, and "cuddle monsters" and journals — made from scratch using a Japanese binding technique — for foster children. Currently they're working on pen pal letters for nursing home residents.
Erin Taylor attended one of the "good deed Fridays" with her sister-in-law and has come back every week since. Now she even helps Byar coordinate the events.
“She has this passion and this fire and you can’t help but feel the same way,” said Taylor, a certified nurse assistant trainee from Traverse City who loves to volunteer. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a rough week and I get to Spark … and the next thing I know I’m having a great time.”
Tendercare Health-Birchwood first learned about Byar when a marketing employee in line at a grocery store observed her pay for the contents of another shopper's cart. They started chatting and soon Byar and her volunteers were creating walker bags for residents of the nursery care facility and bringing in children and Santas for Christmas visits. And when that employee left to take another job, Byar landed the full-time marketing position.
Now the agency works with Byar any way it can to support her work in the community.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Birchwood Executive Director Melissa Slepicka. “There’s so many benefits to what she’s doing in the community and Birchwood definitely wants to contribute to the community.”
Byar's future plans call for "speed-dating" events designed to match volunteers with organizations that need them, and perhaps even a coffeehouse where the “food” menu consists of volunteer activity kits for projects patrons could complete while enjoying coffee and camaraderie with others.
“Look around,” she said, pointing to customers at a downtown coffeehouse and brewpub. “They’re on their computers, talking, and so why can’t you talk and do something good? It really solves the (volunteering) issue of my generation, which is time.”
Byar should know. At 17 she juggled classes at Traverse City High School with being a single mom. She found help everywhere from the school's nursery to God and Bay Pointe Community Church. Now she's married with three children, including a stepchild, and making her own difference.
“Life is about more than surviving,” she said. “It's about loving and helping and having hope, finding comfort and support in others. That's what I feel like we are doing.”