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Junior Achievement group going strong after 65 years

| Saturday, March 26, 2011

In 1919, two businessmen and a senator thought it would be a good idea to offer a business-based program for high school students after school. The program was “The Company Program,” and it marked the beginning of Junior Achievement.

In 1939, Pittsburgh became the first field office for JA and, in the years following World War II, Junior Achievement of Pittsburgh sites were initiated in many counties in Western Pennsylvania. That's when the Mon-Yough group was founded and it continues to flourish.

Initially, the after-school program involved students starting and running a business. Often a product was made and sold, like cookie sheets and hangers.

Although the JA's mission continues to be providing all students with a basic understanding of the free enterprise system, those principles are stressed to students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the classroom by volunteers.

In recognition of JA of Southwestern Pennsylvania's — the organization was renamed in 1952 to reflect the area it covered — 65th anniversary, the Mon Yough group is planning several events leading up to a Sept. 16 luncheon inside an airplane hangar at Allegheny County Airport.

Dick Orzechowski, head of the Mon-Yough district council leadership board, said events are planned that will lead up to the luncheon. “We'll have a display at Century III Mall of various items that people will associate with JA.

We also may be selling the famous Junior Achievement cookie sheets. There will be a poster contest for students and we're having t-shirts made with the logo, “Flying Into the Future with Junior Achievement.”

For the poster contest, students will depict what the theme means to them. There will be three first-place winners — one from grade school, one from middle school and one from high school student.

Those winners will receive a plane ride over Pittsburgh. Information about the contest will be sent to local school districts that participate in the programs. Junior Achievement has one goal — to show students of all ages the importance of work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

This is done with hands-on, volunteer-led classroom programs designed for specific age groups. Volunteers can be parents, business people, or, in the elementary schools, high school students can lead the program.

For instance, elementary-age students learn about their role as individuals, workers and consumers, while common economic and workforce issues are explained to middle- and high-school students.

JA alumni include Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn State University president Dr. Graham Spanier, and TV personalities Patrice King Brown and John Shumway.

“We are looking for anyone who is a Junior Achievement alumni,” Orzechowski said, noting he's hoping to start off a database of former JA students and volunteers. Alumni can contact him at .

Talking about the organization's history in Pittsburgh and the Mon-Yough area, Dave Benn helped recruit volunteer advisors. “I worked for JA 26 years before I retired and ran the Pittsburgh center. I didn't work directly with Mon-Yough but I would see them in coordinator meetings,” he said.

Referring to the program center first in the Market Street School in McKeesport and then the OIC building in Glassport, he said, “There were some good groups that went through there. There were nine or 11 schools and there was great participation among the students.”

After years of after-school programs, JA shifted gears and moved the training to the classroom in 1975 with the introduction of “Project Business” for middle school students. Today, Mon Yough JA is in more than 100 classrooms teaching 2,000 students.

Benn said 65 years ago, there were 30 students involved. Worldwide — JA is in more than 100 countries — the organization reaches 9.5 million students each year in 375,000 classrooms and after-school sites.

Orzechowski got involved with Junior Achievement after retiring from Westinghouse — although he did volunteer for a year while he worked for the corporation.

“I started in 2002 as a volunteer and that led to a position with JA,” the district operations manager said, noting Mon-Yough is one of his districts.

While the program is offered in many school districts, not all are able to pay the cost. As a result, he said, districts must raise funds to be able to continue teaching students.

Funds are received in several ways including Education Improvement Tax Credits, fund-drives, foundation grants, special events and from some school districts.

Referring to the after-school program, Orzechowski said, “We had a cadre of kids. They elected a president, controller and a hierarchy to run a company. They started with $1 and had to run a company and make a profit. They would buy inventory then make a product. We made owl jewelry and sold it. The kids would make their product then go to the mall and try to sell it. With whatever they made, they had to pay the stockholders back before they could claim a profit.”

Mon-Yough advisory board member Bill Evans also got involved with JA by volunteering through U.S. Steel and worked with the after-school program.

“It had to be a good program because we had to turn kids away due to limited space. The program kept kids off the streets and out of trouble and they met kids from other school districts and developed friendships.”

When that program ceased, Evans got involved recruiting volunteers from his workplace. Although the students are the ones who are to glean information from what is taught, he admits he also comes away from volunteering having gained something.

“I had a former student come up to me years later and thank me for what I taught him. That was a wonderful feeling. The students and the staff and faculty believe in us and what we're doing.” Describing JA, Orzechowski said, “Junior Achievement is like the connection between education and business. We recruit volunteers from the business world and they give financial literacy to the students.”

Aside from classroom instruction, businesses can get involved through the Titan program. A computer-based model, it teaches students how to run a business in a competitive setting.

Teams consist of three students and one advisor from the business world. The first-place winners at the regional level advance to the finals in May at LaRoche College. Companies sponsor a team and pay a fee and also have one of their employees serve as a mentor for the competition. Although he cannot tell the team what to do, he can explain terminology.

“Junior Achievement exposes kids to different career paths,” Orzechowski said. “We stress that it doesn't matter what career path you choose, but it should fit the lifestyle you choose. For instance, if you want to have expensive cars and a big house, you will have to choose a career path that will allow that to happen. JA stresses to students to further their education after high school. Even if you want to be a plumber you still have to go to school to become a journeyman.”

For more information about Junior Achievement, visit .

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