What's it like to volunteer with us?

A synopsis of volunteer Nathan Horton's experiences as a JA Discovery Center volunteer.

For the second time this year I had the opportunity to volunteer at the new Junior Achievement Discovery Center at Gwinnett. It is a beautiful facility with modern architecture built inside the new Discovery High School in Lawrenceville. Every day, hundreds of middle school kids from across the county attend a simulation at either Biz Town or Finance Park inside the facility for an alternative learning experience where they are immersed into a day in the life of an adult.

This fully immersive experience provides these kids the opportunities to use critical thinking skills and decision making like never before. They are faced with real life adult scenarios and must choose how to market their products and supply & demand pricing models in Biz Town to choosing between purchasing groceries or eating out to meet their personal budgets in Finance Park.

During a typical visit you will hear the kids make comments such as “insurance really costs that much?” and “do I have to buy my spouse a car?” They are blown away by the cost of dining out, vacations, and even clothes when it is coming out of their family budget.

In my first experience at the Junior Achievement Discovery Center in Gwinnett, I was able to mentor a group of 6th graders through running their store, in our case Home Depot. The CEO walked into the store and promptly informed me that she had studied, knew what to do and had this under control. What a relief! She ran her store and encouraged her employees to do their best, and they did. The CEO of our store stepped in and supported her employees as needed throughout the day even giving up a part of her shopping time (the best part of the day) to help make sure everything ran smoothly her store closing reports were correctly completed by the CFO.

It was an amazing experience watching as they make decisions to marketing, product pricing, and even ethical decisions, such as overselling and rainchecks. In the end, the store made a profit, repaid its business loans, wrote checks to all the employees, and everyone went shopping with those checks and got to take home some swag. It was a huge success.

At Finance Park, 8th graders become adults and are randomly assigned specific life scenarios. You may be a single mother with 1 kid, or a married couple with twins. You might be a young single guy working as an IT manager making $110K per year or a married couple working as an administrative assistant earning less than $30K. Regardless of your scenario, you have the same tasks to complete. You need to create a budget for your family.

You begin by learning what your net monthly income is, after the government takes taxes from your check. This alone was a shock to many of the kids. Once those conversation are complete, they kids then decide what percentage of their income to save. They learn to pay themselves first and create a retirement account and emergency fund before diving into expenses. Finally, with the money that is left, they create a conceptual budget, allocating the amounts they believe they will need to secure housing, transportation, food, clothing, insurance (required to buy health, home or renters, and auto if they buy a car), and about 20 other items including home and auto repair, entertainment, dining out, vacation, philanthropy and more.

While they created their budgets the conversation within the groups was amazing. You could see light bulbs going on in their heads. I heard “Wow, cable cost how much? We won’t have that” and “We can’t go on vacation this year”. I also heard, “My wife can ride the bus… I can’t afford luxury cars for both of us.” I encouraged him to put some money aside for an attorney.

After they create their budgets, the kids get to go shopping. The leave their groups and venture out into the center and to the other stores. They visit the car dealer and get a car, they visit the grocery and get food. They go buy insurance. It was here that many realized they couldn’t eat out every day, as they were forced to choose between food, insurance, and vehicles. They began to realize many of the hard decisions their parents made every day. It was awesome to be a part of the experience.

I could tell stories for hours about the conversations, the kids, the comments, the smiles and all the things that happened during the day at Junior Achievement Discovery Center. I may have learned a lot too. I was most amazed at the preparation the kids had done, the attention they paid, and their willingness to figure everything out. There were over 200 kids at JA Discover Center on the day I was there and there wasn’t a single behavioral issue. The staff a Junior Achievement is superb, the center is great, the kids are wonderful, and overall the entire experience is outstanding. I encourage everyone who can, to volunteer and see it for themselves. These kids will blow your mind.