Junior Achievement needs to fill ranks for April sessions at Waterloo Schools

WATERLOO — Scott Evans feels a sense of pride in students he works with at Waterloo Community Schools.

Once a week for five weeks, he steps into an elementary school classroom to help students understand how money works, the importance of education and financial literacy for future career success and what it means to start and run a business.

He’s a John Deere engineer and a volunteer for Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa.

“It’s rewarding and fun to work with kids and see the light bulbs go on over their heads when they begin to get what you’re talking about,” Evans said.

JA relies on volunteers to teach its curriculum. Evans has devoted 14 years to supporting the nonprofit organization that provides activity-based curriculum to kindergarten through eighth-grade students through an agreement with the school district.

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Now the organization is seeking 30 volunteers to fill a need in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms beginning in April for the remainder of the school year, said JA’s Education Manager Beth Horan. Anyone interested should apply by the end of March at the JA website, easterniowa.ja.org.

Like many charities across the country, COVID-19 curtailed volunteer activities and dealt a blow to Junior Achievement’s volunteer roster. Volunteers weren’t allowed in schools in 2021 and, since returning to classrooms in 2022, the organization has been rebuilding its pool of volunteers.

“It’s been challenging,” Horan acknowledged, but “other nonprofits are experiencing the same challenges.” She hopes appealing to community-minded companies and individuals will attract new or returning volunteers.

“No experience is required,” Horan said. JA provides training and curriculum, including activities that are specific to each grade level. “We want volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. We’re looking for volunteers who are willing to share stories about themselves to enrich the lives of students, who bring excitement and energy into the classroom and are passionate about ensuring students have a good foundation as they continue to grow, with the idea of being successful after high school,” she explained.

“JA has volunteers from the financial community because of our focus on financial literacy. But we also have teachers, homemakers, small business owners and other community-minded individuals from all walks of life.”

Many companies, like Principal Financial Group, encourage their employees to volunteer in their communities. Cassie Creighton, who is a relationship associate in customer care at Principal, began volunteering with JA about eight years ago.

The experience has been fulfilling. “I’ve enjoyed it every year,” Creighton said. Although she’s worked with kindergarteners and fifth-graders, the first-graders have her heart.

“It’s neat to see their interest. These young students catch on so fast and are willing to learn. At this age, the curriculum helps them understand the value of money and how to tell the difference between their wants and needs,” she said.

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Evans has taught JA at several elementary schools, including Fred Becker, Kingsley and Lou Henry, where he has been for the last seven years. Two of his six children are still in elementary school, “so I tend to follow my kids. Other kids remember you from the last year, and that’s great. I ask them questions about themselves and try to share a little about what I do,” he said.

He believes JA is an important tool for classroom teachers.

“It’s a great introduction to managing money, saving and using credit and debit cards,” Evans said. Kids also are encouraged to think about what kind of business they would start. “You can see them light up when they’re talking about it. It’s important for kids to be inspired about their future.”

JA provides the lessons, materials, talking points and training in person or virtually, Horan said. Volunteers are asked to provide their time, stories to share and enthusiasm. There are games and projects to engage children’s interest.

“We give volunteers the teaching kits with everything they need, and teachers are always in the classroom during the lessons. Volunteers are in the classroom for 30 to 45 minutes once a week for five or six weeks, and they spend about that much time prepping for the class,” Horan explained.

Volunteers are seen as mentors by students, “and someone who cares about their success. From a JA curriculum perspective, volunteers ensure that students have an understanding of real-life situations outside of what is normally covered in the classroom,” Horan said.

For Creighton, one of her best rewards is “seeing the excitement in the faces of the children and feeling like you’re part of that,” she explained.

Walking into a classroom for the first time “can be a little scary and intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the age group,” Evans said. “But you have a good lesson plan to follow, so just go for it, make it your own and take the opportunity to inspire young children.

“They’re our future, and we can help prepare them for that future,” he added.

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