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Daily News

EASTHAMPTON — bankESB made a $12,500 donation to the Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts in partnership with the Elan Charitable Giving Program. Elan Financial Services, bankESB’s credit-card solutions partner, launched its charitable giving program in 2022 and has donated more than $1.7 million to charities on behalf of its credit-card partners since the program’s start.

bankESB selected Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, whose proven lessons in financial literacy, work and career readiness, and entrepreneurship are shown to positively impact the lives of young people. It works to help young people discover what’s possible in their lives by connecting what they learn in school with life outside the classroom, letting them know it’s possible to invest in their future, gain a better understanding of how the world works, and pursue their dreams.

“We’re delighted to expand our reach this year to the communities of 15 credit-union and 15 community-bank partners,” said John Owens, Elan Credit Card general manager. “From food insecurity and housing to animal shelters and youth arts programming, the Elan Charitable Giving program continues to support the needs of our partners’ communities.”

Nonprofit Management

Things Are CLICing


Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall

Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall in the wall that is the symbolic start of work to create JA’s new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

It was officially called a groundbreaking, but Jennifer Connelly says it was more of a “wallbreaking.”

Indeed, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, representatives of the many sponsors involved with the project, and other VIPs took turns swinging a large sledgehammer at a wall just off the entrance to the Tower Square offices of Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Massachusetts.

The hole they left behind is still there more than a month later, a poignant symbol of the work — at least the physical construction work — soon to commence on what is being called the Career, Leadership & Innovation Center, or CLIC, a facility that will focus on those first three words with a number of intriguing programs.

Indeed, the center will help students identify career options and make smart decisions regarding post-secondary education; expand their thinking and skill development, thus better preparing them to be future leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators; and provide them with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to make informed and effective decisions with their financial resources.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers.”

JA is creating the center in collaboration with MassHire Hampden County, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, other agencies, and several area employers, said Connelly, and is designed to address a gap when it comes to educating young people about careers and the paths to them.

“We found that there’s a piece missing in the pipeline when it comes to inspiring young people to have careers here in the region,” said Connelly, adding that the center will enable students to learn about and then explore options in fields they may not have been thinking about. In that respect, it will help open doors for young people while also helping to put workers in the pipeline for businesses across every sector of the economy, from healthcare to manufacturing.

In a way, this is a groundbreaking (there’s that word again) new initiative for JA of Western Massachusetts, said Connelly, and in another way … it isn’t. Indeed, while the CLIC is new, it’s also a throwback of sorts to what JA was decades ago — a place where young people could come to learn about business, actually make and then sell products, and gain financial literacy.

An architect’s rendering of the new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

“This is what JA used to be — and that’s what I like best about the center; this will be a place that students can come to,” she said, adding that, while JA of Western Massachusetts has been going into area schools for decades now, it hasn’t had a site that young people can come to since the ’80s.

Work on the CLIC is set to commence in the coming weeks, and the facility is scheduled to open in mid-September. Over the first nine months or so of operations, more than 750 junior-high and high-school students (up to 25 at a time) are expected to visit the center, spend the better part of a day there, and gain new insight into careers, how to attain them, and much more.

The project has drawn a number of supporters, including the city of Springfield, Beveridge Family Foundation, Balise Auto Group, M&T Bank, Country Bank, PeoplesBank, TD Bank, and Savage Arms, who have helped meet the $400,000 cost of the project.

A capital campaign will be staged over the next several months to raise the balance of what’s needed for the initiative, Connelly said, adding that the agency is hoping to gain the support of more area businesses, and is scheduling site visits for those interested in learning more about its mission and how it will be carried out.


Learning While Doing

Connelly told BusinessWest that the CLIC was conceptualized in the fall of 2021 amid what she considered an obvious need for a facility that would not merely take JA back to its roots in many respects, but also help to better prepare young people for life, careers, and the many challenges involving both.

And the need has been there for some time, she went on.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers,” she said, adding that the idea came off the drawing board and into reality with the help of those aforementioned sponsors and a desire for JA to play a pivotal role in helping to solve the workforce needs of employers while also putting young people on a path to not just jobs, but careers.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno takes a swing at the wall that will be coming down to make way for the new center.

As plans for the CLIC began to materialize, she said, a search commenced for a space. Many options were considered, but eventually those at JA concluded they had everything they needed — space-wise, at least — in its suite of offices on the mezzanine level at Tower Square.

The 3,045-square-foot facility will be reconfigured and furnished for the new center, she noted, adding that the CLIC will include a number of components, including:

• A learning lab that will provide student groups with what Connelly called a “starting point for their career exploration journey.” It will also be a space to promote JA’s financial-literacy curriculum;

• A collaboration hub, which will provide groups with a space for interactive work, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking. The space will include modular seating, whiteboards, breakout laptops and tablets, and a leadership library; and

• A manufacturing lab, a makerspace that will provide young adults with the tools and programs to explore and accelerate a career in the manufacturing industry. The CLIC steering committee is currently working with local manufacturers to determine the best resources for the space, Connelly said, adding that equipment may eventually include 3D printers, a flow forge, a Cricut suite, hand tools, soldering kits, and STEM kits.

Overall, the CLIC will provide experiential learning opportunities for middle- and high-school students, said Connelly, adding that, by engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, “they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real work situations.”

And such connections are needed at a time when many young people need exposure to careers and the paths to them, she noted, adding that, for middle-school students, visits to the CLIC may help them with the all-important decision of deciding which high school to attend.

As she talked about a visit to the CLIC, Connelly said it will be preceded by completion of JA Inspire Virtual, a career-exploration program designed to highlight careers and educational opportunities in the region. At the center, students will participate in a seminar led by guest speakers from local businesses, and then rotate through the modular-based learning experiences at the learning lab, collaboration zone, and manufacturing space — followed by a working lunch with financial-literacy activities.

The center will also be open after school for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurial interests by operating their own student company. And in the evening, the center will be available to community organizations and local employers as a hub for learning and collaboration.


Bottom Line

Turning back the clock maybe 50 years or so, Connelly noted that what is now JA of Western Massachusetts was an agency, but also a place where young people from schools across the area could come and, through its ‘company’ program, form a business, make a product, and sell it.

Through the CLIC, JA will be able to provide that kind of experience again, she said, adding that, while the center is a blast from the past in some respects, it is really all about the future — as in the future of thousands of area young people and the area businesses that will, hopefully, employ them.


— George O’Brien


The 18 Under 18

The 18 Under 18 Class of 2022.

The 18 Under 18 Class of 2022.

Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts (JAWM) honored its inaugural 18 Under 18 Class of 2022, sponsored by Teddy Bear Pools, on May 19 at at Tower Square in Springfield. The event — which included poster board displays by the students, remarks, appreciation presentations and a buffet — recognized outstanding young people throughout Western Mass. who exemplify innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

“We were impressed with the caliber of the nominations we received for this recognition,” said William Dziura, Development Director, JAWM. “It’s gratifying to know there are so many young people committed to making an impact on the world, and we are thrilled to be able to offer a forum through which they can be applauded for their efforts.”


The following 18 students comprise the 18 Under 18 Class of 2022:


Trinity Baush, Grade 11, Chicopee High School: A multi-sport athlete and member of the National Honor Society and Student Council, Bausch has shown leadership in all these groups by facilitating fundraisers and leading discussions about important issues. She maintains high academic standards and currently has a 4.0 GPA. Outside of school, she works in a leadership role at Applebee’s. Recently, she has helped increase awareness about the war in Ukraine through a fundraising program with money raised sent directly to a school in Ukraine.


Nevaeh Branyon, Grade 8, Marcus M. Kiley Middle School, Springfield: An outstanding student with a GPA over 4.0, Branyon is passionate about financial literacy and entrepreneurship because of the unique and innovative perspectives they provide. She serves as a Student Council liaison and is a member of the Yearbook, Math and Art clubs. In addition to being a student athlete, she participates in the FitZone after-school programs and is a member of Girls on the Run.


Nathaniel Claudio, Grade 12, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, Springfield: Claudio is president of the National Honor Society and the student representative to the Springfield School Committee. He has been involved with Junior Achievement since his freshman year, participating in the Stock Market Competition, the 100th Anniversary Gala and Parade, the Summer Accelerator and served as a High School Hero, teaching financial literacy to younger students. Outside of school, he is participating in a cooperative learning experience at Freedom Credit Union.


Chase Daigneault, Grade 10, Chicopee High School: Daigneault has participated in school leadership since middle school, where she served and still serves in various class officer positions. Recently, she was voted the class president of the class of 2024. In this role, she plans activities and monitors the social media presence for her class, in addition to organizing fundraisers for charity and scheduling volunteer opportunities for the class.


Ella Florence, Grade 11, Chicopee High School: As a member of the National Honor Society and Class Council, Florence leads many fundraisers, social projects and progressive initiatives. She is vice president of her school’s Best Buddies program, which involves students with autism into school events. Last year, she became a member of the Special Olympics Youth Activation Council and attended the statewide Winter Youth Summit, and she recently attended Capitol Hill Day with a Best Buddies peer. Outside of school, she volunteers at the Springfield Boys & Girls Club Family Center.


Elise Hansel, Grade 10, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: A longtime participant in Junior Achievement programs, Hansel was a student leader in JA’s internship program with the Springfield Thunderbirds, where she played a crucial role in the event’s marketing efforts, including designing the event flier, partnering with area schools to coordinate a group, and making cold-calls to area businesses to sell event business packages. Recently, she won first place for her marketing and design skills in a billboard design competition for the Stop the Swerve campaign.


Liberty Basora, Grade 10, Marketing/Retail Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Known for her outstanding communication skills, fantastic aptitude for working with other students, and innovative mindset, Basora’s most recent project was bringing to life the dormant social media accounts for the school store: Putnam Vocational Beaver Lodge. She analyzed the problems faced by the Beaver Lodge, then created new content that allowed the site to reflect the Marketing Shop and open up two-way conversations with the store’s growing customer base.


Adyan Khattak, Grade 12, Chicopee Comprehensive High School: A member of Student Council, Business Club, sports teams, and the DA’s Youth Council Board, Khattak is passionate about creating opportunities for other students to connect with resources that improve and better their lives. As an intern at the Chicopee Comp College & Career Center, he has applied many creative and innovative approaches to help better answer student queries and needs. In addition to fluency in English, this first -generation American also speaks Urdu and Punjabi and reads Arabic.


Grace Kuhn, Grade 12, Westfield High School: A member of the cross-country team and vice president of the National Honor Society, Kuhn is also a member of the Best Buddies Club, which works with West Springfield’s preschool program, and the Reshaping Reality Club, which focuses on mental health and body image. She completed and published her first novel, Knox Hollow: Murder on Mayflower, during the pandemic and recently completed her second novel, Dalton Ridge: Homicide on Holiday Hill. She enjoys working closely with children and plans to be a speech pathologist.


Katelynn Mersincavage, Grade 12, Hampden Charter School of Science–East: Excelling academically, Mersincavage pushes herself with multiple advanced placement classes and college dual enrollment courses. She is a member of the National Honor Society, Student Council and the soccer team. Outside of school, she is an organizer and active participant in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, where she regularly participates in fundraising and awareness events for the cause, which hits close to home; her brother lives with type-1 diabetes.


Alondra Nieves, Grade 10, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Academically, Nieves maintains a 4.0 GPA. Creatively, during the pandemic, she started teaching herself to play the guitar and write music, using her skills and talents as a poet to create songs. She is actively involved in the Hampden County District Attorney Youth Advisory Board with responsibilities on the Mental Health Teen Task Force. She also reads to elementary students, participated in the Stop the Swerve Campaign, and helped with a school-wide food collection.


Sean O’Dea, Grade 12, Mohawk Trail Regional High School: O’Dea is captain of his cross-country team, a member of the Student Council, secretary of the Key Club, a member of the National Honor Society and student representative to the School Committee. He was also selected by his teachers to represent the Town of Heath for Project 351, a non-profit lead by Governor Baker to develop the next generation of community-first leaders through youth service. For his AP language course, he wrote and produced a video essay highlighting local environmental issues in Franklin County.


Ricardo Ortiz, Grade 8, Marcus M. Kiley Middle School: Ortiz moved to Springfield from Guatemala at age 11, speaking only Spanish. He has since participated in the Empowerment Academy and the school band, where he plays clarinet. This year, he campaigned successfully to establish a Yearbook Club and inspired the idea of painting an 8th grade mural, so students can leave their mark for future generations. He aspires to be the first person in his family to graduate from college, with the goal of becoming an entrepreneur and opening his own flower shop to honor his late grandmother.


Het Parikh, Grade 12, West Springfield High School: Leader of the percussion section of the school band, Parikh is also a member of the National Honor Society and the Key Club, and serves as a student tutor and participant in the Innovation Pathways Program. He has maintained a 3.92 cumulative GPA while simultaneously earning more than 30 transferable college credits. Outside of school, he has volunteered at the Lions Club Food Kitchen at the Big E, the clean-up of Mittineague Park, and the local senior center, where he runs a smart phone clinic.


Parmila Sarki, Grade 12, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Since her freshman year, Sarki has been involved with Junior Achievement, participating in the annual Stock Market Competition, the 100th Anniversary Gala and Parade and the Summer Accelerator. She also served as a High School Hero, teaching financial literacy to younger students. During the pandemic, she worked with her teacher to create videos to help younger students understand financial literacy concepts. After school, she helps first graders with schoolwork.


Jadyn Smith, Grade 11 Chicopee High School: This student activist works to make the school a better place by advocating on behalf of the entire student body. As a member of the National Honor Society, Smith helps facilitate fundraisers, including one for a school in Ukraine, and is also on the Student Council fundraising committee. Outside of school, she enjoys volunteering at her local church, helping to address food insecurity, and is an assistant manager at McKinstry Market Garden.


Kayla Staley, Grade 11, Springfield Conservatory of the Arts: An accomplished singer, Staley has been featured at events across the community ranging from school graduation ceremonies to the Union Station Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Western Massachusetts Chorus Festival. She also excels academically and is president of her class and a member of the National Honor Society. She was selected as a student representative for the Springfield Public Schools Portrait of a Graduate, and to receive private coaching from Broadway stars, college professors and other masterclasses.


Victoria Weagle, Grade 11, Frontier Regional High School: This exemplary student leader is passionate about her community and finding creative solutions to complicated problems. Weagle is greatly gifted in scientific research, and hopes to develop these skills in college and throughout her life. She is involved in Quiz Bowl and many extracurricular science projects, including a volunteer research trip to Dominica in 2023, for which she has saved up her own funds.


Nominations for the 18 Under 18 were open to anyone 18 years or younger who attends school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties. Judging criteria was divided in three categories: innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

Beyond the award recognition, the students selected will benefit from a meaningful new network of community leaders and peers and may receive additional opportunities through event partners. They will also be invited to participate in a virtual leadership workshop later in the year.

Nonprofit Management

18 Under 18

Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer Connelly says JA’s 18 Under 18 program will recognize young people in three areas — innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

Jennifer Connelly says that, in many ways, the new recognition program created by Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Massachusetts was inspired by the pandemic and a recognized need to bring attention to the manner in which young people, who were impacted by COVID-19 in many different ways, stepped up and displayed true leadership and community involvement at a turbulent time.

“The past few years have been tough on everybody, but they’ve been even tougher on young people,” said Connelly, the agency’s president and CEO. “I think that being isolated, doing remote learning, having to wear masks, not being able to interact with people like they used to, like our volunteers … has challenged many of them, and they’ve felt isolated and removed from being part of the community. We wanted to do something to recognize them to help their self-esteem, but also for the community to realize what a bright future we have with these young people who are doing so much already and celebrate them.”

But these are qualities worthy of recognition at any time, she went on, noting that JA’s new initiative, called 18 Under 18 — in a nod to many regional and national recognition programs, including BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty — and presented by Teddy Bear Pools, will hopefully become a permanent fixture in the region. That is certainly the plan.

“We wanted to do something to recognize them to help their self-esteem, but also for the community to realize what a bright future we have with these young people who are doing so much already and celebrate them.”

The program, as its name connotes, will recognize 18 young people from across the region in both middle and high school. Nominees must attend school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire County, and while involvement in JA programs is not required, it is considered favorably during the evaluation process, which is now underway. The class of 2022 will be introduced later this month, and they will be honored at ceremonies in the Tower Square food court on May 19.

Candidates will be judged in three areas, said Connelly — innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement — and the nominations that have been received, mostly from teachers, principals, guidance counselors, parents, and other students, show all of those qualities.

Connelly said the program is modeled after initiatives launched in recent years by JA chapters in Arizona and Pennsylvania, and is designed to bring attention to the accomplishments of young people, their leadership skills, and the manner in which they are inspiring others.

She said finalists for the program will be required to attend a 30-minute virtual interview with judges who will ultimately select the 18 to be honored this year.

Those who are nominated are asked to submit something “creative,” she added, be it a photo, a video, a poem or story they wrote, or, in the case of students from the Springfield Conservatory of Music who were nominated, YouTube videos.

“We’re asking these students to display leadership and entrepreneurship, but in the sense that entrepreneurship is creative thinking, the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur, the ability to think outside the box, and problem solving.”

“We’re asking these students to display leadership and entrepreneurship, but in the sense that entrepreneurship is creative thinking, the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur, the ability to think outside the box, and problem solving,” she explained, adding that the exercise in creativity should certainly give the judges some things to think about.

Elaborating on that concept of leadership, Connelly said it can come in many forms and many forums, and the 18 Under 18 program should bring this out.

“You don’t have to the student president of a particular grade,” she explained. “You can be demonstrating leadership in a class, for example, stepping up when you see someone having problems in class and helping them.”

Community service is the third leg of the triangle, she said, adding that, even during the pandemic — or especially during the pandemic, as the case may be — young people across the region have found ways to help others and serve their community.

The chosen 18 will be recognized in many different ways, which is one of the hallmarks of the initiative, said Connelly, adding that she is expecting several local media outlets to introduce the honorees to the region. At the May 19 event, there will be a reception for the honorees, with 250 to 300 attendees expected, and awards given out (Country Bank is the award sponsor). There will be even be ‘18 Under 18’ lawn signs to identify the homes of the 18 honorees.

Eventually, the goal is to award college scholarships to the honorees, said Connelly, adding that this goal can be realized if the program catches on as expected and additional sponsors can be secured.

Ted Hebert, owner and founder of Chicopee-based Teddy Bear Pools and, coincidentally, one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2022, said he was approached by JA several months ago to be a sponsor of 18 Under 18. A strong supporter of youth programs and organizations committed to serving young people, from youth sports leagues to Boys and Girls Clubs to YMCAs, Hebert said he attached the Teddy Bear name to the initiative because it dovetails with other work he and his wife, Barbara, are involved with, and meshes with his values when it comes to how such agencies should serve young people.

“I like to help organizations that don’t enable people,” he explained. “I like organizations that help people, give them a helping hand, to guide them and help them through whatever they’re going to go through to make it better for them and our society. I’m looking to assist people, and this program seemed to be something that would be assisting young people in their personal lives and, potentially, their business lives. And I liked that idea.”

As with other recognition programs of this kind, Connelly said 18 Under 18 will take some time to become part of the fabric of the region. As it gains visibility and the students are recognized for their accomplishments and talents, she expects the number of nominations to steadily grow.

Over the coming years, she believes, this recognition, a word she chose over ‘award,’ is something that students and those that they inspire will come to value and strive for.

“We’re really excited about this,” she said in conclusion, adding that such a recognition program for young people has been a missing ingredient locally. “We know how special these students are. We need to let everyone know.”


— George O’Brien

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts (JAWM) staged a Virtual 5K Run/Walk June 11-14 to raise funds to support its literacy, entrepreneurship, and career exploration programs. A total of 14 participants met the challenge and raised $1,450 for the cause.

“The realities of the pandemic prompted us to hold this event virtually, but we are so grateful for the participants who still made the commitment to support us,” said Jennifer A. Connolly, President, JAWM. “Every bit helps as our programs are offered at no cost to schools and youth groups. Our students need financial literacy and work readiness programs to be prepared for their futures.”

Participants paid a $25 entry fee and were encouraged to walk, run or bike with friends and family and solicit donations through their own fundraising pages. Safety Restore of Westfield was the event’s medal sponsor, and Country Bank was the certificate sponsor.

Nonprofit Management

In Good Company

Jennifer Connelly, left, and Dawn Creighton

Jennifer Connelly, left, and Dawn Creighton display promotional materials for the JA Inspire program’s career-exploration fair set for May 28.

The 100th Anniversary Gala for Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts will have a decidedly ’20s flair — as in the 1920s. In fact, the theme is “The Roaring ’20s are Back.”

Attendees are encouraged, but not required, to come in period dress, a challenge that Jennifer Connelly, executive director of the local JA chapter, met (with considerable help from her daughter) by doing a hard search online that yielded the appropriate dress as well as a headband with a feather.

“I’ll have the long gloves and the long cigarette holder — a full outfit; it will be very interesting to see what people come up with to mark the ’20s,” she said with a trace of understatement in her voice.

But while the gala will amount to an effort to turn back the clock in many respects, Junior Achievement, and especially its Western Mass. chapter, have been turning the clock forward, focusing on the 2020s — and the decades to follow — with a host of programs that are seemingly far removed from the organization’s original mission to introduce young people to the principles of business — but then again, not very far removed at all.

Programs like JA Inspire.

Created by a coalition of education and industry leaders led by JA of Western Mass., this endeavor is designed to introduce young people to industry sectors and careers, and also provide awareness of what skills will be needed to thrive in those settings.

At the heart of the initiative is a massive career fair set for May 28 at the MassMutual Center that won’t follow the typical model for such events.

Actually, it will, but the audience will be decidedly different. Instead of people looking for jobs they can enter in a few weeks or even a few days, those roaming the aisles will be middle- and high-school students gaining information on jobs they might fill sometime in the next decade.

“We’re going to have representatives of a number of industry clusters, and we’ll also have representatives of the post-secondary schools in this area,” said Connelly, “so students can understand that there is a pathway to a career that they might be interested in.”

In many respects, JA has always been about identifying and illuminating pathways, and JA Inspire is just one example of how this nonprofit has stayed true to its original mission while also evolving over the years and expanding into programs, 23 of them in all, for students in grades K-12, said Connelly.

These programs provide lessons in everything from how government works to how large a slice of one’s paycheck the IRS takes; from how global the global economy truly is to the all-important difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’ when it comes to how one spends their money, she said, adding that, to get these messages across, JA relies (as it has throughout its history) on volunteers.

“We try to make that match between what they’re learning and why it’s important, and it’s very rewarding work.”

People like Sharon Dufour, chief financial officer at Ludlow-based LUSO Federal Credit Union and a JA volunteer for more than 30 years, 20 of them in this market. She has been instrumental in bringing JA programs into schools in the Wilbraham/Ludlow area, and also in moving beyond traditional school-banking initiatives — where students learn the basics of banking — and into financial literacy.

She’s taught at all levels, including seventh grade and a program called “JA is My Future,” which helps students understand the value of what they’re learning.

“It helps them understand the skills they’ll need for specific jobs,” she explained,” adding that, in the last full school year, LUSO helped coordinate 130 classes for Junior Achievement, reaching 2,810 students. “We try to make that match between what they’re learning and why it’s important, and it’s very rewarding work.”

Julie Ann Pelletier agreed. A retired transplant to the Berkshires just over a decade ago, she was looking for volunteer work to take on and certainly found it with JA — she now coordinates the agency’s programs across the Berkshires.

One of them is an initiative to promote entrepreneurship in high-school students, for which they needed a product that students could design, make, market, and sell. Pelletier helped inspire one — crocheted hats (she teaches that art).

Fast-forwarding, she said she wound up teaching a number of Putnam Vocational Academy students that skill, and a few of them went on to start their own businesses and eventually win business competitions as they moved their ventures forward.

“I’m 72, and they’re 17, so they called it ‘Twisting the Generations,’ — it was the old school teaching the new school,” she said, summing up quickly and efficiently what JA, and its volunteers, have been doing for the past century.

For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, BusinessWest examines all that JA is celebrating as its marks an important milestone — 100 years of not only teaching young people about business, but preparing them for all that life can throw at them.

Getting Down to Business

Connelly told BusinessWest that JA’s 100th birthday bash will be a year-long celebration, one that has a number of goals, from honoring the past to raising awareness of its many programs and initiatives in an effort to ensure sustainability.

It will be capped, in most respects, by a series of events on Sept. 28, when JA National, as it’s called, which is based in Colorado, will stage JA Day at the Big E, home to the first Junior Achievement building ever erected — funded by Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co., and one of three men who founded JA in 1919. There will be a parade, speeches, and a dinner, and Connelly is expecting representatives from many of the 107 JA chapters nationwide to be in attendance.

Jennifer Connelly says JA has evolved considerably

Jennifer Connelly says JA has evolved considerably over the past century, but remains true to its original mission.

Locally, the immediate focus is on the May 4 gala, to be staged at MGM Springfield, an event expected to draw more than 300 people. The list of attendees includes two descendants of U.S. Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts, another of the founders (the third was Theodore Vail, president of AT&T), as well as a representative of Strathmore Paper.

So there will be significant ties to the past, said Connelly, adding that the gala will honor the agency’s founders, but also all the change and evolution that has come over the past century, and there has been quite a bit of both, as her quick history lesson shows.

“When they founded JA 100 years ago, it started off with what they called the company program,” she explained. “Students came together, formed a company, and sold a product; they envisioned a way to help young people transitioning from an agrarian-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy.”

A glass display case in the front lobby of the JA’s offices on the second floor of Tower Square holds artifacts that speak to those early days of the company program, everything from ribbons awarded at a competition in the mid-1920s to a wooden lamp built by area high-school students to later sell. (Connelly isn’t sure of the date on that item, but guesses it’s from the mid-’70s.

The student-company initiative continues to this day, she said proudly, noting that a number of area high schools run the program after school, during the summer, and as part of the regular school day.

Pathfinder Regional High School, for example, has expanded its program to includes a Facebook page, she said, adding that one class is enjoying success with selling a brush designed for pets called Brush It Off.

But over the past 30 years or so, JA has taken on a broader role, one certainly in keeping with the founders’ intent, especially within the realm of financial literacy. And that role will likely become deeper still following the passage of a bill in January that allows state education officials to establish standards around financial literacy, which schools could incorporate into their existing curricula in subjects like math, business, and social sciences.

The standards will be guidelines, not a mandate, said Connelly, adding that, for those schools who wish to adopt these guidelines, JA could become a partner in helping to bring those lessons home.

The agency already provides a wide array of financial-literacy programs to students in grades K-12, she noted, citing, as one example, something called the Credit for Life Fair, staged recently at Elms College, a program created for high-school students.

Students essentially choose a field, are given a budget, and are presented a number of options on how to spend their money — from investments to essentials like housing, a car, and groceries, as well as ‘fun’ items. They then visit with a credit counselor to review their choices and discuss the consequences of each one.

“These are great learning experiences,” Connelly said of the fair, several of which are conducted each year. “They actually get to see that, even if they get a good job and make a lot of money, that money doesn’t go too far. And they learn about the importance of having a good credit score; they can be a doctor and make a lot of money, but if they have a bad credit score, that’s going to hurt them down the road.”

The Job at Hand

While JA is providing young people with a look at life in a chosen profession through these Credit for Life programs — well, sort of — it is also introducing them to industry sectors, career paths, and specific jobs through initiatives like the JA Inspire program and the aforementioned event at the MassMutual Center.

The formal name of that gathering is the Inspire Career Exploration Fair, and that’s appropriate, because that’s what the attendees will be doing — exploring. And while they’re doing that, area employers might be getting some help with the biggest problem they face these days — securing a workforce for the future.

“Every employer in every industry sector is experiencing workforce shortages,” said Dawn Creighton, Western Mass. director for Associated Industries of Massachuetts, which came on board as a sponsor of the initiative early on and has been encouraging its members to take part. “People are not ready for the workforce, whether it’s vocational skills, technical skills, soft skills — they’re not ready.”

The career-exploration fair was conceived to help ensure that the next generation of workers is more ready, she went on, by not just introducing young people to career possibilities they may or may not have known about, but also spell out for them what it will take to land such a position in terms of skills and education.

And that’s why the event has caught the attention of businesses in several sectors, from manufacturing to healthcare to financial services, and from every corner of the 413, said Creighton, adding that all see a chance to open some eyes.

“All too often, these types of career days come during the spring of senior year, and by then it’s often too late,” she told BusinessWest. “We need to introduce young people to all the career opportunities out there, and we need to do it earlier.”

Sharon Dufour, long-time volunteer with JA

Sharon Dufour, long-time volunteer with JA, is seen here with third-graders as she provides lessons about zoning and building a city.

Thus, the fair, as noted, is an example of how JA’s mission has evolved and the agency has moved beyond the classroom in many respects. But area schools are where most of JA’s life lessons are delivered, a tradition that began a century ago and continues today through the work of teachers and especially volunteers.

Dufour has worked to recruit them for years and said more are always needed to help JA reach more young people.

“I tell every volunteer I know that it’s the most rewarding experience you can imagine,” she said. “The kids see you; they remember you. I once had a kid come flying across the Stop & Shop to give me a big hug. Her mother said, ‘my daughter does not stop talking about you.’”

Pelletier agreed, and said the rewards from volunteering come in many flavors, especially the satisfaction that comes from seeing a light go on in a young person’s eyes as they realize their potential to take an idea or a skill (like crocheting) and run with it.

“Once people get the basics, they fly,” she said, referring specifically to crocheting, but also to the many principles of business in general. “And it’s incredibly exciting to watch it happen.”

Past Is Prologue

“The future of our country depends upon making every individual fully realize the obligations and responsibilities belonging to citizenship. Habits are formed in youth. What we need in this country now is to teach the growing generations to realize that thrift and economy, coupled with industry, are as necessary now as they were in past generations.”

Theodore Vail spoke those words a century or so ago when JA was in its infancy. But they certainly ring true today, especially that part about habits being formed in youth.

Helping young people develop the right habits has been JA’s informal mission for 100 years now. There are now more ways in which in that mission is being carried out, but it’s still about pathways and putting people on the right ones.

And that’s a proud history worth celebrating.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]