Led by a UCF alum, Hero Spark is an after-school program that uses role-playing games to help teenagers improve their self-esteem and hone their social skills.
Step through the automatic glass doors of the Orlando Public Library, hang a left and soon after you’ll start to hear it. The rolling of dice. Outbursts of laughter. Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” playing from a nearby cellphone speaker.
It’s this melody of sounds — and the noticeable lack of shushing — that makes it evident: You’ve entered no ordinary space of this downtown library.
Which is just as UCF history graduate Phil Zoshak ’09 would prefer it for the library’s Teen Zone and his after-school gaming program, Hero Spark.
Established in 2015, Hero Spark uses strategic card, board and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons to help 11-to-18-year-olds grow as individuals.
While Hero Spark offers homework tutoring, and the gaming aspect of the program has roots in storytelling, Zoshak says more than anything his focus is to foster an environment that hones social, emotional and interpersonal skills.
“I hope the skills that I’m teaching are going to be important for the 21st century. Social empathy, communications skills, strategy and problem-solving — these are all things we are going to need,” he says. “This is how I learned them, so why wouldn’t I give this to the next generation of kids?”
From F’s to A’s, Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons
Zoshak identifies with the kids he interacts with because he says he was just like them at 14. He struggled socially and didn’t have many friends. He wasn’t confident in his educational aptitude and his grades showed it.
“This is how I learned … so why wouldn’t I give this to the next generation of kids?”
Things changed when he started playing a computer game called EverQuest. He describes it as a virtual Dungeons & Dragons — a game in which you pick a role and journey through an adventure with a group of other gamers.
“It was painfully intricate. You could not do anything by yourself. You always needed a group of people. Ironically, being in my game room as a kid with my computer, I was still connecting with people,” he says. “If you crossed someone in the game, people remembered that, and they wouldn’t invite you back to play again. It taught good behavior.”
He eventually joined a group outside of the virtual world when a friend from high school invited him to play with her Dungeons & Dragons crew.
When they finished playing, he would go home and write what took place during that day’s adventure. He realized that the game was spurring an interest in creative writing as well as helping his mental math and vocabulary improve. Suddenly, in the classes he was previously failing, he was now not just passing, but excelling in with A’s.
Moreover, the social behavior he picked up through online gaming was now being applied to face-to-face interactions. He started making eye contact with the other gamers and talked through challenges and problems as they arose in the game.
“These are all skills as an adult I needed and didn’t have at the time,” he says. “When you triumph through a challenge, whether it is imaginary or real, you bond with people. They became my big group of friends.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was setting up the foundation for what would later become his life’s work.
Zoshak realized he had a talent as a “kid whisperer” in 2009 when he started interning with AmeriCorps’ Public Allies program. He worked at a foster group home, and though it was challenging, he says he learned that he possessed an innate capability of interacting with and relating to the children there.
When the internship ended, Zoshak landed a program coordinator role at the Urban Think Foundation’s children’s literacy program, Page 15. He spent two of his years there forming the blueprint of the gaming program but could never quite get it to work the way he had hoped.
Eventually in 2015, he went out on his own to start his self-proclaimed nerd nonprofit.
“It was terrifying. I was really nervous, but I was passionate and I was ready,” he says. “I believed this is what I was meant to do in my life. I knew I had something there, and I just needed to work on it.”
His leap of faith worked out.
That same year, the Orange County Library System approached Zoshak about starting an after-school program. He’s been working with the library ever since at the downtown location.
“I like him. He’s funny. He’s really nerdy. I like being nerdy, too,” says 16-year-old Ryan W., who is homeschooled and recently started attending Hero Spark sessions.
“I was pretty antisocial, so it’s been really good for me to get out of the house, come here and talk to people.”
In 2017, Rachel Swertfeger joined the crew as programs coordinator and extended Hero Spark to the South Trail Branch (4600 S. Orange Blossom Trail).
The program is held 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays during the school year. Zoshak says the activities average 15 to 20 participants a day at both branches and a core of 25 to35 students who attend at least twice a week.
UCF first-year psychology student Ethan Ratliff and his younger brother Adam are two of the regulars.
“I was pretty antisocial, so it’s been really good for me to get out of the house, come here and talk to people,” Ratliff says.
The two were introduced to Dungeons & Dragons when they first attended Hero Spark two years ago, and Zoshak has been tutoring Ratliff in how to be a dungeon master (lead a campaign in the game).
Zoshak hopes that when Ratliff ages out of the program soon, he can be the first Hero Sparker to transition into a volunteer homework tutor and game leader.
A Positive Spark
While the bedrock of the program will always be there, Hero Spark is constantly looking for new ways to evolve.
They’ve added one-week camps in the summer and family game nights. A group of Hero Spark moms is working with Zoshak to create a live-action role-playing program, which he says will incorporate physical education into the curriculum.
As Hero Spark has grown, it has been recognized with grants from Walt Disney World and the City of Orlando that have helped continue to fuel its success.
Those certainly have been welcomed and significant affirmations for the program, but what matters most to Zoshak is when he sees positive changes in the students.
“I can teach them to be positive and confident about who they are.”
He was thrilled in 2017 when he saw improvement in his regulars’ scores on the Rosenberg self-esteem scale, a test widely used in social-science research, which Hero Spark administers throughout the year.
“I had a kid who told me she didn’t have any friends before she joined Hero Spark. She said she really was in a bad place and very depressed. To have no friends and community was tough for her, and she was diagnosed with autism on top of all that. Her reality was just different,” Zoshak says. “Now, when I see her, she’s way happier. She has friends.
“I hope that the community building I’m providing for these kids gives them a safe harbor to weather out this delicate time in their life. I can teach them to be positive and confident about who they are. It’s something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”