Preparing students for real life goes beyond the usual education taught in schools. Financial literacy and work readiness are vital for the success of the community, and Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South tries to fill that need with its programming for school students in the region.
Larry Colbert is president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South, a role he’s held for over 20 years. Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South is one of 112 JA areas around the U.S. The area goes as far east as Jackson, Tennessee, south to Holly Springs, Mississippi, and west to Jonesboro, Arkansas.
The staff of seven people works to keep the program going in as many school districts as possible while also fundraising to make that work possible. The organization is a nonprofit that depends 100 percent on outside contributions.
And that staff of seven can’t do everything. In fact, the organization depends on a volunteer database of over 1,100 people in the region who have been called on at one time or another to go into classrooms to teach JA programs.
“I don’t have all of them at once,” Colbert said. “It depends on what’s available to them and the demand that we have from schools wanting our program. In 2016 we probably used just over 200 volunteers. Some come in groups. We have a program called JA in a Day where that five-week program is a blitz. We may have a local banking organization who wants to come in and do a program but can’t do it in five weeks. We can do it in one day.”
Colbert started with Junior Achievement as a classroom volunteer. He moved to Memphis from Louisville in 1984 for work. He fell in love with the city and what had been a plan to leave after a few years has become a long-term adventure as a Memphian. And after a few years Colbert became acquainted with the mission of Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South, and he became a classroom volunteer.
“The first time I did it I fell in love,” he said.
And for almost a decade he volunteered in various elementary schools teaching Junior Achievement programs. After a 20-year career in retail Colbert decided to move on in 1996, and what started as a volunteer role became his current career with Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South.
“I love it as much or more today as I did when I taught in classrooms,” he said. “I don’t know how there is anything more important in life than making young people have an education. I think all of our efforts should be put on helping educate these young people at a young age. That’s one of my passions. I believe in it.”
When Colbert first decided to volunteer with Junior Achievement he viewed it as a way to take a break from work while acting on his passions for serving and teaching.
“There’s nothing like walking in the classroom for the first time and looking in the eyes of those young folks sitting there hinging on my every word, waiting on me to talk,” he said. “They’re wanting to know what goodies I brought in my bag. The programs are so engaging. Everything about the relationship with the students is beautiful.”
There are two facets to Junior Achievement’s programs, all of which involve the organization’s pillars of economics, entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy.
The first facet – and what the organization was founded on – is the in-school component. It’s taught by volunteers at every grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade. Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South works with school systems and individual school principals to get them interested in the programs. Once they sign up the next step is reaching a volunteer pool to connect individuals to the school.
The second facet is called Capstone Program. This is an opportunity for students to learn from a hands-on standpoint. JA Biz Town is at the organization’s Downtown Memphis offices at 307 Madison Ave. This is a mini-city where students participate in 15 “businesses.”
It all starts with the five-week curriculum that is taught at school by a teacher and then followed with a one-day simulation where students are bussed in to run their own city. They elect a mayor and have a police chief. The businesses all have owners and accountants.
“Their goal for that day is to sell enough goods and services to pay off their business loan in a day,” Colbert said. “They absolutely love it. We have great corporate support.”
It’s that corporate support that enables the JA Biz Town to thrive in Memphis. In fact, out of the 112 Junior Achievements across the U.S. only 42 have Capstone.
“Since we opened JA Biz Town in 2002 we haven’t lost one corporate sponsor within our facility,” Colbert said. “Nobody has given up the space and there’s a reason for that. It’s great marketing and it’s a wonderful tool for giving back to the community for the very audience who will become future employees.”
And that’s the ultimate idea, to have students work-ready when they get out of high school, college and hopefully remain in the city to begin their careers.
While the corporate roster in JA Biz Town is full, there is always a need for more volunteers. The most basic requirement is an interest in working with young people, not to mention the patience and desire to do so.
“The great thing about our program is you’ll never set foot in a classroom until we’ve fully trained you,” Colbert said. “Everyone is vetted before going into a classroom.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or making a donation to the organization can go to jamemphis.org. There is a Donate Now button that makes contributing simple. Organizations also can sponsor classrooms or schools to make the program possible.