MARSHALL - Junior Achievement USA, the nation's largest non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring and preparing young people to succeed in a global economy, reaches more than 4 million students annually in 176,000 classrooms and after-school locations. In Lyon County this past year, more than 1,600 students were touched by the JA program.
According to JA of Lyon County Board President Charlie Ehlers, the program also expanded into Lincoln County recently.
"This will be the first year that Lincoln County will have Junior Achievement, so we're excited to see the program get going," Ehlers said. "These programs are designed to improve the quality of young people's lives through adult volunteers who present classroom lessons to educate young people in order to increase their knowledge of personal finance issues, as well as to inspire them to value enterprise, business and economics."
Using age-appropriate curriculum, JA teaches kindergarten- through high school-age students how they can impact the world around them - as individuals, workers and consumers. Beginning with the 2003-2004 school year, JA was taught to more than 20 elementary and secondary classes in Lyon County, between students at Marshall Public and Holy Redeemer schools.
"Tom Hoff deserves a ton of credit for getting it kicked off," Ehlers said. "Tom was instrumental in that process and served on the board for a number of years."
Since that time, JA of Lyon County has expanded to 85 classes in nine schools in four Lyon County communities.
"This next year, we estimate that JA will be in about 90 classrooms," Ehlers said. "That covers Marshall, Minneota area, Cottonwood and Lynd. JA is also in Murray County. Obviously, with Lincoln County getting into the mix, it's proof that the program is continuing to grow."
Ehlers pointed out that the money to fund JA comes from a variety of sources, though an annual grant from the United Way of Southwest Minnesota is considered one of the organization's biggest contributors.
"Money definitely comes from a combinations of things," he said. "We're looking forward to another successful year thanks to the assistance of United Way of Southwest Minnesota. This year, they also came through with money set aside for Lincoln County."
To help finance approximately $250 per classroom costs, Ehlers said that JA of Lyon County also solicits individual and corporate donations in addition to fundraising at local events. This past summer, Ehlers and his oldest son Spencer raised money for JA by selling ice cream products during the Sounds of Summer celebration in Marshall.
"The schools and communities have embraced it," Ehlers said. "They realize that the program has some relevance and some significance and from a board's perspective, we want to keep it that way."
Ehlers explained that area schools are made aware of the opportunities that JA can provide the students.
"Some of the teachers decide to take part in it," he said. "Sometimes, time-wise, it doesn't work out for everybody. From that, the (JA) board creates the framework."
Basically, Ehlers said, the framework for teaching the students is already set up since the curriculum is established and manuals are laid out at the national level. Hands-on activities are a big part of the program.
Approximately 100 volunteers assist with the program in Lyon County, he said, including parents, businessmen and businesswomen from the surrounding communities.
"Any volunteers are always welcome," he said. "We do some training and help get them comfortable and knowledgeable so they're ready to present and teach the children."
Ehlers, who is the national account manager for office equipment at U.S. Bank in Marshall, has three children - Spencer, Grace and Luke - in the school system in Marshall. While serving on the board is enjoyable, Ehlers said, the most rewarding part is presenting to the students.
"The looks on the kids' faces as they're learning the different curriculum is one of the most rewarding things I've been part of," he said. "Seeing their eyes light up, you know you're making a difference for them."
Although the curriculum can vary somewhat from year to year, repetition of the program has shown to be beneficial.
"It's cool because the kids recognize the orange JA suitcases and ask what they're going to learn this year," Ehlers said. "The repetition really helps them to remember."
Depending on the age level of the classroom or the preference of the teacher or presenter, there is some flexibility in the way that the program is taught.
"Some like to go into a classroom for five straight days, for a total of three to five hours, which probably allows for better retention," Ehlers said. "Others might teach every Friday for five weeks, which may provide more flexibility for teachers who are on a tight time schedule. There are certainly pros and cons."
The bottom line, Ehlers said, is that regardless of how the program is administered, students benefit.
"JA provides them with real life circumstances," he said. "Growing up, we don't always talk about financial stuff, like having bills to pay. You'd like to think that parents or educators taught everyone along the way, but it can be a daunting task. JA provides a lot of education and tools."
Ehlers credited program manager Carol Bossuyt as the "glue that keeps the everything together." Ehlers also praised the JA board. Having a strong board helps ensure future involvement, he said, enabling students to explore career opportunities, gain an appreciation for the free enterprise system and acquire valuable life skills, including financial literacy.
"Our board is fantastic," he said. "As with most things, with an engaged board that has passion, great things can happen. And, people aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and help out. No one gets burned out that way."