Doughnuts and Taxes: Volunteering with Junior Achievement
In October I took advantage of an opportunity to participate in JA in a Day, a program by Junior Achievement (JA) of Alaska that brings volunteers into schools to teach students about business. It was exhausting and fantastic, a wonderfully fulfilling opportunity to connect with local youth and share a little bit of myself to hopefully give them a foundation of financial success in their future.
So here’s how it went.
It was quick and easy. At any point if you’re interested in volunteering for JA of Alaska, you can go to the organization’s website at alaska.ja.org.
In my case, because of the longstanding relationship between JA of Alaska and Alaska Business, JA of Alaska’s President Flora Teo was kind enough to send over an invitation to our entire office, and both myself and our Bookkeeper James Barnhill decided to jump in with both feet.
We were given the opportunity to sign up for an online training session; unfortunately, working at the magazine has permanently “adjusted” my sense of time, and I signed up for a session that took place after I was supposed to volunteer. On the fortunate side, the delightful staff at JA caught my error and I was able to watch a recorded training session with helpful information on how to communicate with the students, along with guidelines on appropriate ways to interact with them.
A few days before I volunteered, a packet of materials was dropped off at my office. The night before, I opened it—I’m an editor, I hit deadlines, I don’t dash ahead in front of them—and found to my delight several lesson plans complete with all the materials I needed for several activities, including fake money, little paper doughnuts, stickers, magnets for the kids, and perhaps most importantly, a manual. I reviewed each plan and thought, “Great! I’m ready!”
I Wasn’t Ready
…But unless your profession is teaching children or you’ve volunteered before, I’m not sure you can be. So don’t let that dissuade you.
The morning I was signed up to volunteer, I met the other JA volunteers at the elementary school. JA kindly provided us with snacks and gave us newbies time to settle our nerves by chatting with each other, and many of the other volunteers were old hands at JA in a Day. I could tell from their palpable excitement that this really was an opportunity worth making time for, even as they traded stories about their favorite, funniest, or less-than-stellar moments.
In time, the intercom announced that, as the students had been anticipating, today was JA in a Day, and a student or two from each class needed to report to the volunteer base camp to escort us, making sure we didn’t get lost. As I watched other volunteers file out, I had this irrational moment of anxiety that the students sent to fetch me would see me and immediately report to JA that I looked unfit. Fortunately for everyone, that irrationality was unfounded, and two sweet 2nd grade young ladies told JA they were here to fetch me. On the way to their classroom, I asked their names and benign questions to try to make them like me. It seemed to work, and I felt a slight jolt of confidence.
It disappeared almost immediately.
I walked into the classroom and every little face turned to stare at me. The teacher helped me find a place to set down my coat and warm winter things. As I got used to all the staring eyes, she kindly asked all the kids to introduce themselves, going around the room so they could all tell me their names. With that done, she told them to be polite and attentive, sat down, and I attempted to faithfully start Lesson One.
What I Brought
The JA materials are divided into five lessons. In some locations, volunteers teach one lesson a day, which can take forty minutes to an hour. In Alaska, JA of Alaska has developed “JA in a Day,” where the volunteer teaches all five lessons in succession; every class in every grade at the school participates, making it into a highly anticipated, school-wide event.
The lessons have been developed specifically for each grade, and all of the grades differ. So when a student participates in JA in a Day year after year, they build on the knowledge base of the year before. In the 2nd grade curriculum, we were focused on basic concepts that are, nonetheless, kind of difficult to explain: money, community, production, taxes, et cetera.
One of the exercises was hard for me (though the kids seemed fine).
The lesson is about production, specifically quality of work and the value of working together. I divided the room up into a few groups and they were given paper doughnuts, a sheet of egg stickers, a sheet of milk stickers, and a sheet of flour stickers. Their job was to place the stickers on the back of the doughnut. If done carefully, one of each kind of sticker would fit and not overlap each other or the side of the paper. Then the students had to flip it over and write—legibly—an “S,” “P,” or “C” to indicate if the doughnut was strawberry, powdered, or chocolate, respectively. Each student needed to complete six doughnuts.
The group that “made” all of their doughnuts first ended the game, but it didn’t determine the winner. Once the first team told me they were finished (by very calmly jumping up and down, waving their arms, and yelling, “We’re done”), I collected all of the teams’ doughnuts and then began a process of “quality assurance.” If the stickers were applied incorrectly, the doughnut wasn’t labeled, or the label was illegible, it was eliminated. At that point, we knew which team was the winning team, as only the “perfect” doughnuts were counted.
It’s hard to convey how hard it was for me to discard doughnuts as hopeful students stared at me, counting along to see which team would come out on top. It’s a huge credit to the students that no one argued or even protested as certain doughnuts were set aside as “unsellable.”
It was also hard, after this exercise, to hand out paper money and then take back “taxes” on what the kids had earned making doughnuts. About halfway through the taxation process, some of the kids started hiding their money in desks or pockets, protesting they had none. I thought the best life lesson I could impart in that instance was a relentless pursuit of the “missing” funds, as the IRS will be no less determined.
What I Took Away
[I’m already over the word count I promised the production team, and I want to cut nothing and I have so much more to share, but I’ll try to wrap it up.]
Throughout the day the children were eager to learn, excited to have an adult come spend time with them, and more than willing to answer questions, participate in vocabulary drills, or share what knowledge they did have about the concepts we were reviewing.
At one point, during a transition between Lesson One and Lesson Two, I was floundering slightly, and I just started talking out loud so the kids would think I was still teaching. “So, this is Lesson Two,” I half muttered, and one student asked: “How many are there?” I responded this was Lesson Two, and there were three more after, so how many did that make? Five, they told me. I confirmed.
What I didn’t plan on is how much they enjoyed counting down. Whenever a lesson ended thereafter, I would just say so instead of stressing over a transition, and they’d make happy chattering noises about getting to do something new. When I mentioned we were on Lesson Five toward the end of the day, they were dismayed that we were coming close to the end.
At the end of the lessons, with roughly ten minutes left in the school day, I told the students I had reached the end of my material and thanked them for their attention, their good attitudes, and their welcoming spirits.
One student said, “I wish I could give you a hug.” Between my being a relative stranger and the ongoing pandemic, a traditional hug was out of the question. But I told them we could do air hugs.
I had them stand up, put one arm in the air, and then the other, and then we all brought both arms down and hugged ourselves to say goodbye. I’ll keep that moment with me for a long time.