In today's troubled economy, now more than ever, raising youth to become financially responsible adults seems critical.
A group of volunteers in the Alpena area have been committed to doing just that for many years now. Junior Achievement of Alpena is a hands-on program that since 1986 has placed local business representatives in upper elementary, middle school and high school classrooms, where they teach students about financial literacy, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness.
Last year alone, the program reached 800 students.
Junior Achievement of Alpena volunteer Michelle McEwen speaks to a group of fifth graders at Besser Elementary School.
"Our goal is to teach financial literacy to our youth and to allow our young people in the community to know the importance of something as simple as balancing a checkbook," said local attorney and Junior Achievement volunteer Dylan Wallace.
Through hands-on learning, JA puts an emphasis on real life examples and activities such as investing and running a business. Using well-established curriculum and materials, the volunteers help prepare the students to develop successful financial management habits and empower them to explore the potential of becoming an entrepreneur.
This fall, JA plans to go into 23 classrooms. Included among those classrooms are fifth graders at Bingham Arts Academy, Wilson, Hinks, Sanborn, Besser and Ella White Elementary Schools. Ten programs also will be run at the Thunder Bay Junior High School and three at Alpena High School.
With the start of another year of JA programming in the local schools, the organizaton's board of directors encourages others in the business community to get involved. That involvement is two-fold: people interested in helping can sign up as volunteer to do the in-school presentations or they can donate funds necessary for keeping the program up and running.
"We are seeking individuals who want to volunteer and go into classrooms," Wallace said. "There may be some hesitancy to doing this, but we offer orientation and mentorship so that they have someone to call with questions."
The program runs for 5 to 6 weeks, with the volunteers in the classroom once a week. The materials include lessons plans so that they don't have to come up with what to teach on their own.
"The lesson plans are developed but there is room to be creative," Wallace said.
It costs approximately $9,000 per year to operate the program in Alpena area schools, with program kits for each classroom running at $400 each. According to Wallace, businesses and individuals in the area have always been generous and supported the effort.
The JA board recently mailed out fundraising letters in which Brian Winter, the current program chairman, shared that a roundtable survey of more than 300 AHS students showed that most students lack a sense of financial management, practical life skills, workforce plans for after graduation, and an accurate view of local employment, business and leadership opportunities. Winter encouraged area businesses to donate to the program in hopes of helping to reverse this trend.
Among those who have had a positive experience with volunteering for JA is attorney Daniel J. Florip, who several years ago taught a fifth grade class at Bingham Arts Academy, using creative activities that focused on banking and checking accounts. He was surprised one day to receive a phone call from a father of a boy in his class.
"I've got the usual checking and savings accounts, but I've never really paid much attention to them aside from depositing my paycheck and paying my bills," the father told Florip. "No one ever taught me how to properly manage my accounts. Last week I came home from work, and my son asked to see my checkbook. And I want to thank you. Because that night, for the first time in my life, someone taught me how to balance a checkbook and it was my 10-year-old son."
Florip believes that experience underscores the importance of the Junior Achievement program.
"We don't have to wait until the students grow up to see the positive effect that JA can have," Florip said. "In this case, the effect was pretty immediate."
Among those currently serving on the JA board of directors are Bernie Lamp, Michelle McEwen, Brian Winter, Dylan Wallace, Karen LaFleche, Jodi Ritthaler, Mike Schultz, Matt Waligora and John Short.