78 percent of workers in the U.S. are living paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey. 77 percent of Colorado employers struggle to find workers with applied skills like critical thinking and problem solving, according to a 2018 statewide poll. A local organization is working overtime to change these statistics, however, to ensure the next generation is prepared to become successful adults.
Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain (JA), based in Denver, prepares K-12 students for the real world through hands on learning experiences in the areas of personal finance education, entrepreneurship, and career readiness.
Nationally, Junior Achievement is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but it was 1950 when Denver gained its own local office. While the organization has evolved over time, one unique aspect has remained constant—all JA programs are led by corporate and community volunteers.
“My JA volunteer is the reason I finished college,” says Robin Wise, who has served as President and CEO of JA-Rocky Mountain since the early 90’s and directly benefitted from JA as a teen. “I was putting myself through college and ran out of money, which I admit is not very JA-like. So I went to work as a flight attendant for TWA, but I didn’t like that job. I came back home, but couldn’t get a job doing what I wanted to do because it required a college degree.”
It was then that she called her JA mentor, Mr. Peery, to get help finding a job.
“He connected me with a woman who was everything that I wanted to be. She was beautifully dressed, had her own office, worked as an executive in an ad agency, and she told me that if I ever wanted to do what she does I needed to finish college. I remember feeling, oh, I’m actually not all that and a bag of chips!” Wise laughs.
“Inspired by that meeting, I went home and re-enrolled in college. I credit Mr. Peery for connecting me, he knew exactly what he was doing by introducing me to her.”
Since taking the helm of JA-Rocky Mountain, Wise has exponentially increased JA’s program offerings and the number of students benefitting from JA. The organization now offers a full menu of in-classroom programs for every grade level, job shadow opportunities, events like the JA Stock Market Challenge, which immerses students in a game-like simulation of the stock market, a business leadership summer camp called Business Week, a college scholarship program, and a 7,000 square-foot space called JA Finance Park, presented by Transamerica, in which students become adults for the day and practice personal and family budgeting skills. Last year, JA-Rocky Mountain served 115,000 students.
“We are not the same organization that we were when I started and we are not the same organization we were even five years ago. We keep innovating and trying new things and growing because school districts see such a value in JA programs,” Wise says.
All JA programs are free of charge to schools. That’s because the organization does not want money to be a barrier to entry. Therefore, JA relies on contributions from corporations, foundations, and individuals.
“My passion for this organization stems from knowing that there are so many kids like me who just need a little kick in the pants and need a mentor, someone to look up to, or need a path. I’m convinced that this organization is the best way to build up young people.”
Wise notes that JA Finance Park is at capacity, with schools participating daily throughout the school year, and hints that an expansion may be in the works.
“We’re so good with financial literacy and exploratory learning, we want to bring that kind of immersive exploration to career preparation and entrepreneurship. Stay tuned, we’ll be announcing something soon!”