(This blog post was submitted by Tamara Pounds, Retail Marketing Officer, Mechanics Bank.)
Shortly after I joined Mechanics Bank, my boss asked me to sit in on a Junior Achievement (JA) kick-off meeting for which she had a schedule conflict. She had been leading the Bank’s involvement in this group, coordinating dozens of employee volunteers.
After that first meeting, I was hooked on Junior Achievement’s concepts and objectives—teaching basic economics to kids in predominately low income areas—and wanted to be a part of it myself. With my supervisor’s support, I immediately became the Bank’s JA liaison and coordinator, helping assemble volunteers to deliver the JA curriculum into kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms at E.M. Downer Elementary School in San Pablo.
On my first day of volunteering at Downer I was paired with a Spanish speaking teacher, Keith Valdez. Keith was assigned to lead the same group of students through both first and second grade, helping them along the way to gain fluency in a language they often don’t speak at home. He needed a Spanish-speaking volunteer and I fit the bill.
As I started to talk with the class about the basic concepts of the program, I could see that they just weren’t getting it. I immediately switched to Spanish and both the students’ and the teacher’s faces lit up. They were so surprised and excited, and wanted to know why I could speak Spanish so well. The kids guessed I must be from a Spanish country with a predominately black population. They were surprised to hear that I learned Spanish just to be able to communicate with family members whose first language is Spanish, too. By speaking their language, I had won these children over—and the teacher, too.
Until he left to take another job, I continued to teach JA in Keith’s classroom at Downer. In fact, I still team with him, although now he has a teaching position at Hannah Ranch Elementary School in Hercules. Although it isn’t a “Title One School”—low income and economically disadvantaged—the kids love the games and classroom interaction designed into the program. One of the great things about JA is that, although they target Title One schools where help is most needed, they are happy to allow volunteers to bring the JA program to any school. For example, I have been able to teach JA in my granddaughter’s school all the way from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Why do I think JA’s financial literacy program is so important? One reason has to do with changes in the way most families function these days. When I and my contemporaries were young, we often had parents who were able to spend more time with us than parents can today. My dad used to let my sister and I “help” him pay bills. We would sit down and go through all the household expenses and Dad would show us how to write checks and then subtract them from the bank balance. We were learning about budgeting and finances without even realizing it. Soon, Dad would give us his store credit card to go purchase school clothes, certain we weren’t going to go crazy with it. In fact, my sister and I would try to figure out how we could spend as little as possible while still getting what we needed—we often picked clothing we could share. Then we’d record our spending as part of our family budgeting.
Today, that kind of lesson in financial responsibility—and the time it took for my father to deliver it—are missing from many homes where both parents are working, often in double shifts. This is especially true in the schools where JA focuses its programs.
But financial literacy is only one benefit of Junior Achievement’s program. Equally important, volunteers serve as role models that help students imagine and hope for a future in careers they never before thought about. The professional dress and behavior of volunteers helps children begin to understand appropriate behavior that may help them succeed in the workplace.
One day, after I became the JA coordinator at Mechanics Bank, I was invited to speak at a career day at Downer Elementary. Before the meeting, the principal invited me to his office for an interview. He asked me about my background and my work. I told him that I come from a family of academics. My grandmother graduated from Langston University in Oklahoma in 1927, majoring in education with a minor in Mathematics. Her graduation gift from her parents was a trip to Europe. She went on to establish an expectation that all her children and grandkids would go to UC, which she thought of as the college gold standard. While we didn’t all go to UC, we all went to college.
When I told him this, the principal was gobsmacked.
“None of my family went to college; they were high school dropouts,” he said. “But I bet if we present our stories side by side and then ask the kids which story belongs to whom, they will make the wrong assumption. This is perfect, because I want these children to see that they don’t have live up to stereotypes; that even if dropping out of school is ‘normal’ in their neighborhood and world, it isn’t the norm across the world. They can succeed if they believe they can.”
We tried our experiment out on the children, and it worked just the way the principal expected. Looking at their reactions, it was so satisfying to realize that some of them were rethinking their assumptions and life expectations. Just being there, I was able to counter a stereotype that might otherwise have governed their beliefs about themselves.
That is what JA does for kids—it teaches them from kindergarten on—not to be put into a box or limited by peer pressures and expectations. And understanding economics is the start of it—the basic building block. JA can fill in the gap left when parents just don’t have the time or tools to teach their children, even though they may want to.
I’m asked all the time by teachers and children, “Are you a teacher?” “No,” I say, “But I’m a mom.” That’s all that is really needed to identify with these kids.
You can do it, too. Whether you opt for the “done in a day” program spending a full day teaching four or five lesson plans, or you are able to volunteer to teach weekly lessons, you can make a special difference in the lives of kids who can use all the help they can get.
If you’re interested, check out the Junior Achievement website at www.janorcal.org. You’ll be able to locate schools and programs near you. And if you have questions, feel free to write to me at Volunteers@mechbank.com. It will be my pleasure to respond!
(The Mechanics of Volunteering is written by employees of Mechanics Bank to show readers how easy and rewarding it is to volunteer in our community. If you’re with a nonprofit that is looking for additional volunteers, go to www.mechanicsbankcares.com where we’ll try to match your needs with our employee volunteers. If you have questions for Tami or others at Mechanics Bank, click here.)