Through Junior Achievement, business volunteers share knowledge in classrooms

WILLMAR -- Bob Mathiasen didn't understand why the children in his Junior Achievement class seemed so miserable when he arrived for one of their sessions.

WILLMAR -- Bob Mathiasen didn't understand why the children in his Junior Achievement class seemed so miserable when he arrived for one of their sessions.

Then the teacher told him that they had just read a story, and a dog died at the end.

"I thought, oh great, I get to come in right after the dog died," said Mathiasen, head of Wells Fargo Bank in Willmar and president of the local Junior Achievement board.

It's all part of the job for Junior Achievement volunteers visiting local classrooms to educate young people about free enterprise and its impact on their lives.

Those unexpected moments keep volunteers coming back to the program, too.


Many of the local board members first became involved with Junior Achievement while living elsewhere. They jumped at the chance to get involved when the program started here a year ago in Willmar's elementary schools.

Teresa Behm recalled asking a question, and the first little boy to raise his hand announced that it was his dog's birthday.

That just wouldn't happen in the meetings she usually attends, she said. After working with adults all day, she finds third-graders a nice change of pace.

"For me, it's fun, because I don't get to work with children," said Behm, who works at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar and is a board member.

The program in Willmar is in its second year. It started last year as part of a regional program funded by a three-year Southwest Minnesota Foundation grant.

Mathiasen was contacted because he has been involved with Junior Achievement in the past. Beth Fischer of Target also got involved with the board early on.

Target, Wells Fargo and ACMC were early supporters of the program, along with United Way, the Willmar Area Community Foundation and local service clubs.

The money that is raised helps pay for the kits volunteers take into the classrooms. Teachers then get to keep the flashcards and other materials that are in the kits.


Board member Kelly Zuidema, who works at Westberg, Eischens & Van Buren accounting firm, demonstrated a paper building that her students had colored. They put together the buildings and figure out where to put them on a zoning map of a community.

"That's why the kids like it, too," said Mike Gramm, a partner at Westberg, Eischens & Van Buren and a board member. "It's hands on."

The kits include small items, like rulers, kids can take home and nameplates to place on their desks when it's time for Junior Achievement. Volunteers send an information card home for parents.

In its first year in Willmar, Junior Achievement volunteers taught in 13 classrooms. This year, they will be in at least 33 classrooms, maybe more.

Mathiasen said he thought students and teachers enjoyed the program in its first year, and "the volunteers had a blast," he said.

Jefferson Elementary teacher Suzanne Berg said her students liked working with the volunteers and learning about the community during Junior Achievement. They like the hands-on activities and "they got to vote," she said.

Jessica Call, a Target employee, learned about the program at work.

"I thought it sounded like such a great idea, and I was more than happy to volunteer," she said. Her class went very well, she said, and she is looking forward to teaching again this spring.


The lessons teach children the basics of how a community works. Younger children may talk about how a city works; older ones will look at regional issues and learn more about economics.

"I taught my daughter's class last year," said Fischer. "It was a great partnership with the teacher and the kids."

The most successful programs involve the classroom teacher working side by side with the volunteer teacher, Mathiasen said.

The program can be beneficial to teachers, because it follows state standards, Mathiasen said. The curriculum is updated every two years.

Volunteers, even experienced speakers, are trained in what to expect in an elementary classroom, Mathiasen said.

"It's amazing how intimidating 24 third-graders can be," he said.

"The taxes were probably my favorite part," Gramm said. "I gave them each five dollars" and then pointed out that their teacher didn't have any money.

"How does your teacher and the firemen and policemen get paid," he asked them. He explained that taxes pay those salaries, and then told them, "Everybody give two dollars back."


Everybody groaned about that, but they understood a little more about how taxes work.

"It's all really age appropriate," said Tammy Schirm of Wells Fargo Bank, also a board member.

Schirm said she's been impressed with the employers in the community who allow time off for their employees to work with Junior Achievement.

Wells Fargo is a big supporter, with seven people from a staff of 18 working with the program.

"It's nice to have that opportunity," Schirm said.

The volunteers have found some nice surprises in their classrooms.

Working on lesson plans and standing in front of a class made her appreciate the work that teachers do, Behm said. "We take it for granted."

"What surprised me the most was the way the kids latched on and built relationships in such a short time," Schirm said. "By the third or fourth meeting, they were telling me stories about their lives. I didn't expect that."


Fischer said her students from last year greet her when they see her at Target.

"It's one more adult that cares," Mathiasen said, "and who knows if you're the adult who will make a difference."

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