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Junior Achievement marks five decades in Akron

3/13/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Organization hoping for more volunteers

Students from Isham Elementary School in Wadsworth are shown as they work together on a Junior Achievement assignment.
A third-grader at Helen Arnold Community Learning Center in West Akron is shown participating in a Junior Achievement program. The local chapter, which provides programs for youths in 12 counties, is marking its 50th anniversary this year.
Photo courtesy of Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio
SOUTH AKRON — Michael Gaffney is the new president of Junior Achievement (JA) of North Central Ohio, but he’s no stranger to the good the organization can do.

Gaffney was formerly an executive with the United Way of Summit County, but he had worked as a JA volunteer for several years in the Coventry Local School District.

“I have been volunteering in the classroom the last seven or so years and had a teacher in Coventry schools where I was living that liked the program we had to offer,” he said. “In the 10th-grade class, we looked at the economics of staying in school. There were kids that wanted to go to work. I tried to get them to understand that $10 an hour when you’re 16 is great, but if you don’t get an education, you’re going to be making $10 when you’re 25.”

When he was out in the community, he would sometimes come across students from the class, and he was happy to see the lesson stayed with them.

“They would tell me they are still in school and doing great,” he said. “That’s what I loved about doing that locally.”

Gaffney, of New Franklin, took the helm of JA in late 2013, just in time to help the organization celebrate 50 years of making a difference in the lives of young people.

The organization was founded as Junior Achievement of Akron in 1964, and since then thousands of area students have had the chance to learn more about business, entrepreneurship and personal finance, among other things. According to statistics from last school year, JA of North Central Ohio brought 1,067 JA programs taught by 907 volunteers to 22,720 students in 166 schools in the region.

“It brings out the natural talent that young people have,” Gaffney said. “Over the years doing programs with kids after school, I can see that it changed a lot of kids’ perceptions of themselves.”

Junior Achievement USA officials said it is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills they need as they plan for their futures and make smart academic and economic choices. According to its website, the program was founded in 1919 by Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph; Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co.; and Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts.

Its first program, JA Company Program, was offered to high school students on an after-school basis. In 1975, the organization entered the classroom with the introduction of Project Business for the middle grades. During the last 38 years, JA has expanded its activities and broadened its scope to include in-school and after-school students.

Locally, the Akron program, which eventually covered the counties of Summit, Medina, Coshocton, Holmes, Portage and Wayne, joined with the programs in Ashland, Crawford, Knox, Marion, Morrow and Richland counties to create the North Central Ohio chapter in 2007.

Gaffney said the Akron area program has followed a path similar to the JA programs nationwide.

“It was an after-school idea that started us off as more of a club,” he said. “When the opportunity came to move into the classroom, we were there and ready to go and built great relationships with schools in our area. At that point, with 25-plus years of after-school programs, kids that had been in the program were out in the work force and wanted to show JA to younger people.”

While there is a small staff that provides support in JA’s Firestone Parkway office, it’s those volunteers that are so integral to keeping the organization running, said Development Specialist Stacey Nolt.

“We need a volunteer to go into each class and serve as an in-class mentor,” Nolt said. “Without the support of volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Gaffney said volunteers come to the group in a variety of ways. JA works with corporations and businesses that allow their employees to be available, while others come from the community and want to give back.

“They take on a classroom and do five to six sessions in that classroom,” Gaffney said. “We hope they enjoy it and maybe are able to do two, or take one in fall and spring.”

Volunteers receive one-on-one training before they take an assignment, which includes JA materials specially designed for the classes. 

“They create this at the national level, and it’s tested and redeveloped every five years so it’s very current and very fresh,” Nolt said.

JA has a list of schools and teachers that would like to host programs, and volunteers can select a school they are familiar with or live near, Gaffney said. Currently, he estimates there are about 60 to 70 available classrooms in need of volunteers.

“We would love for more folks to jump in,” he said.

Schools can choose how they would like the JA curriculum presented, either as “JA in a Day” or as shorter lessons over a period of weeks.

Gaffney said younger students learn about JA concepts through an exploration of community. In one class he participated in, students learned about resources and manufacturing in a puzzle exercise that showed how different countries trade goods.

“It helps them understand how we are all interconnected,” he said.

Older students learn about entrepreneurship and financial literacy topics, such as how to get a credit card.

Gaffney said JA is funded through a combination of corporate foundations, community foundations, individual donations and fundraisers.

The 50th anniversary is going to be celebrated at JA’s annual meeting and luncheon June 4 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn. Gaffney said he is hoping some JA alumni will come forward to share their stories for the event.

Nolt added that sponsors are also being sought to cover the costs of the luncheon for current JA students who want to attend.

The anniversary also will be celebrated at an Akron RubberDucks game April 28 at 6:30 p.m.

As for the future, Gaffney said he believes the organization has plenty of room for growth.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t double the number of students we are reaching in the next five years,” he said. “So many people know the value of financial literacy and work-force readiness. In JA, we’re working to teach kids about that. We are primed and ready to go — we just need to find folks to support us.”

For more information, call 330-434-1875 or go to jaofnco.ja.org.

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