Junior Achievement Inspires and Prepares Young People To Succeed in a Global Economy
Maria Vargas started her first business, a jewelry line called “El Joyerito de Maria,” when she was just six years old.
Years later, when she and her family moved to the United States from Colombia, a lot of things changed, including the name of her small business, which she renamed Cute Creations. The company’s product offerings were handmade bracelets, necklaces and earrings, all designed by Vargas.
“At first, I took apart my mom’s necklaces that she didn’t want anymore and I made new bracelets and key chains,” Vargas remembered. “Then, I started buying beads from Michaels to make fancier jewelry.”
Although Vargas didn’t know it at the time, she was an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until high school when she was introduced to Junior Achievement (JA) that she began to recognize and foster this inherent part of her personality.
With the help of JA, Vargas created her second business, Mind Your Own Business. MYOB is a nationally acclaimed program that promotes entrepreneurship in Gainesville. In 2013, MYOB won first place at the state level and second place internationally at competitions put on by DECA, a not-for-profit student organization that prepares members for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
Vargas is now a sophomore at the University of Florida majoring in public relations. She recently started working for a company called Lean Startup and attributes a great part of her success to JA.
“Without Junior Achievement, I never would’ve gotten involved with the startup community and been able to do MYOB,” Vargas said. “And without MYOB, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
The Junior Achievement Mission
So, what is JA? JA is the oldest and largest financial educational organization in the world. Its mission is to inspire and prepare young people like Vargas to succeed in a global economy.
The organization provides educational programs for elementary, middle and high school students in financial literacy, workforce readiness and entrepreneurship. All programs are correlated to grade-level curriculum and state standards.
“Everything that we use enhances [teachers’] lessons,” explained Diane Smith, education director of JA of Alachua County.
The programs are designed by professionals with Ph.D.s in education and taught by JA volunteers. JA volunteers may be parents, students, professionals, business leaders or community members.
“The volunteers are the pivotal key,” Smith said. “They are what makes Junior Achievement the success it is.”
There are about 500 JA volunteers in Alachua County. According to Kristin Schreiner, regional director of JA Tampa Bay, these volunteers donate about 35,549 hours to JA on a yearly basis, which equates to a $675,000 donated investment.
With the volunteers’ help, JA reached about 6,200 kids in Alachua County last year. That’s about 22 percent of all students in Alachua County.
“The goal is to reach 100 percent,” Smith said.
Dr. Owen Roberts, superintendent of Alachua County Schools, has expressed his commitment to helping JA reach that goal.
“To have the support of the superintendent is very exciting,” said Joe Lowry Jr., JA of Alachua County’s board chair.
Lowry said he believes that with the right combination of money, time and volunteers, they’ll be able to reach their goal.
Support JA Throughout the Year
Since JA is a nonprofit organization, it relies heavily on donations for financial support. Each year, the organization hosts three events to raise funds.
The first event is the Celebrate JA Breakfast. The event, which usually takes place in the fall, brings together anywhere from 100 to 200 community members for breakfast. Last year, with the help of the Campus USA Foundation, the Celebrate JA Breakfast raised about $65,000, Schreiner said. The event is a one-hour celebration of JA’s accomplishments throughout the year. During the breakfast, JA kids like Maria are invited to talk about their experiences with JA.
“What’s particularly great about that event is the kids and how confident they can be at the podium in front of that group of people,” Schreiner said. “I think it’s everyone’s favorite part of that event.”
The second event is the JA Golf Classic. The last event was named after its title sponsor, Infinite Energy. The Infinite Energy JA Golf Classic took place on November 17, 2015, at Haile Plantation Golf and Country Club and raised about $25,000.
Karen Clarke, assistant superintendent for Alachua County Schools, kicked off the event with a few words on the importance of JA. Afterwards, the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award was presented to Kirk Klein, a managing partner at Koss Olinger and a JA board member.
“The award honors local entrepreneurs who live in a way that’s really consistent with what we would hope a business owner would be,” Lowry said. “They are successful professionals but also good people that give back to the community.”
The third and final annual JA event is the bowl-a-thon. The event, which takes place in the spring, is designed for small businesses that wish to be involved with JA but don’t have the resources to contribute in large amounts. All businesses have to do to participate is buy a team and bowl.
“It’s just fun,” Schreiner said. “At the same time, it builds awareness for us and enthusiasm for the organization, as do the other events.”
Proceeds from all events directly support JA programs in Alachua County and help kids like Maria reach their full potential.
If you’re interested in participating in an event, making a donation, or becoming a volunteer, please contact Kristin Schreiner at [email protected] or 321-474-0123.