Abagail McKiernan – Spark in the Dark

By Kirsten Gunsberg

With the fall of 2015 gusting it’s way in, leaves landing in the spots the sun used to warm, Abagail McKiernan found herself doing what a lot of us do in the space between the last days of summer and these long, cold northern winters – reevaluating. In a church that sits between Long Lake and Silver Lake, the young mother weighed some tough situations in her life against the words of the bible study she was attending. As the women in her group shared their own challenges, another young woman who’d just left a bad relationship mentioned that after months of couch surfing she’d finally moved into her own place. 

It was small, it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t really furnished but it was hers and she was thrilled. Without missing a beat and without prompting another woman chimed in to offer a bed set she wasn’t using, adding that she’d have her husband drop it off so the young woman wouldn’t have to worry about transport. 

That night, Abagail played back the kind gesture she witnessed, the lightening of another’s load, how it lifted the mood of everyone in the room, bringing comfort even beyond the receiver. As she drifted off her dreams were overcome with the mantra

connect everyone no matter what the story is.

So she did. Adding a few friends she thought might be able to give each other a helping hand, Abagail created a Facebook group named “Spark in the Dark.”

The rules were straightforward. 

First, everyone must be kind to each other. Second, members should take based on need, not want. And last, don’t turn around and sell something given in the group. 

The concept was even more straightforward. We’ve all had a spare something that we knew could be the bridge for someone else, if only we knew who that someone was. Spark in The Dark introduces you to that person. Outgrown baby gear, clothing pulled from the back of the closet and furniture that’s collecting dust in the attic finds new purpose with residents in Grand Traverse County and beyond who can put a call out to the group for up to three items they’re in need of, or respond to offers of items posted within the group. 

Besides offering material items, members can also offer free services to each other like snow removal, auto repair and help with rides to job interviews. What started with less than a hundred members and just a few donations grew exponentially. By 2017 Spark in The Dark received non-profit status and as of now the membership is at over 10,000.

Jennifer Morneau, Jenn Donohue, Abagail McKiernan at Mosaic church hosting the Spark in the Dark 2019 Easter Egg Hunt (10,000k eggs – we will have 25,000k eggs for 2020

Just as the group wouldn’t work without the thousands of members who come together to show love and solidarity in times of hardship, the group wouldn’t exist at all without the people who’ve come alongside Abagail to help her sustain and grow the project since its inception. She credits Jenn Donohue and Jennifer Morneau, administrators for the group, for all of the time and effort they’ve put into the project. She also says that without the support of her friends within the community including Russ Ryba, Nick Beadleston at Bay Area Recycling, Bill Marsh Jr., Julie Millien at Benjamin Twiggs and Ranae McCauley at United Way, there’s no way the group could have sustained this long and reached as many people as it has.

With just less than 100,000 people living in Grand Traverse County alone, nearly 10% are living below the poverty level, according to the United States Census. That means there’s also a monetary need for members of Spark in The Dark and when a member experiences a financial emergency the group has the opportunity to pitch in. But with these large numbers, things can get a little complicated. As Abagail explains, there’s some days where the Facebook page is so inundated with requests and offers of help that postings of critical needs get buried and it can be difficult to cull through each one to match it with the right resource. 

Spark in the Dark family helping plant a garden in Traverse City. (This is a part of a pilot we wanted to try called Sprout where we all donate time and seeds and then share what the garden produces. This is the TC garden and there is also a Kingsley garden.
Abagail McKiernan speaking at the October 2018 Grand Traverse Woman luncheon

That’s why, after years of operating on the Facebook platform, Abagail and her Spark supporters are working hard through fundraising to collect the $30,000 needed to create an app that will link those in need with those who can help, in real time. The app will not only simplify the way the 10,000+ members connect, it’ll also lead them to established resources equipped to quickly assess individual cases and provide solutions to urgent situations like housing crises, financial emergencies and food assistance. The hope is to launch locally and expand its reach overtime.

Abagail speaking about Spark to the TAHRA – Traverse Area Human Resource Association spring of 2019

It’s a lofty undertaking, but it’s the natural progression of an idea stirred by compassion, something that grows bigger and bigger between the people who share it. 

The full board at an Ugly sweater board meeting in December 2018.
Jared McKiernan, Abagail McKiernan, Jenn Donohue, Jennifer Morneau, Andrew Morneau

It’s also a reminder that humble acts like taking a few minutes to create a Facebook group, or dropping off a bag of groceries or giving away a highchair can have powerful results. This October, Spark in the Dark celebrated four years of connecting northern Michigan residents to one another, while Abagail celebrated another milestone – marrying Jared McKiernan, who she met at a Salvation Army conference shortly after starting the group.

Abagail’s family in San Diego July 2019 – Jared, Abagail, Aiden, and Scarlett with bonus sea lion in background.
Abagail McKiernan

When Abagail reflects on the second-hand bed set that became the catalyst for Spark, she doesn’t just see how its changed the lives of those in her community, she sees how it changed her too, giving her life direction at a time when she’d felt aimless and lonely, “It restored my faith in humanity,” she says, “And hope in the world. It showed me the kindness of strangers and that doing one small thing can create something huge.”

If you’d like to help Spark in The Dark meet their $30,000 goal for the upcoming app that will streamline it’s services you can donate here.

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