If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that the future is uncertain, perhaps more so than we imagined. What was once taken for granted can be upended almost instantaneously, all plans and expectations suspended for the foreseeable future. Life, as we know it, can cease to exist, leaving in its place a confusing, unpredictable and challenging ’new normal’.
What does it take to get by in uncertain times? To come through the storm intact, perhaps a little worse for wear, but nonetheless whole? Fortitude, courage, foresight, these are essential qualities, in uncertain times and otherwise. Just as important are tangible, real-life skills: good decision making, the know-how to make, spend and save money wisely, the ability to work hard, for oneself or another, and the strength to rise up after being knocked down; these are the skills that separate those who thrive from the rest.
It’s these latter skills that Junior Achievement (JA) of Southern Alberta aims to instill in Southern Alberta’s youth. For 60 years the organization has been dedicated to educating young people in financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship. To date, it has served over one million Albertan youth.
JA Southern Alberta is part of global Junior Achievement, the world’s largest non-profit organization serving youth and located in over 120 countries.
“What we’ve experienced over the last eight months with the economic uncertainty and instability in labour markets, in Calgary and across the world, has really driven home for us, as an organization, the value of our work,” says Melissa From, President and CEO of JA Southern Alberta. “This generation is going to face so much uncertainty, and they’re going need to be able to create their own path and economic opportunities. We’re teaching them resiliency and the basic life skills to do that.”
Prior to the pandemic, JA programs were delivered in the classroom, through the help of volunteers from the business community. “We work with all 27 school boards in southern Alberta,” says From. “We work with private education, home education, remote education, Catholic, public, you name it.”
In March, when students were sent home from school for the remainder of the year, JA Southern Alberta was on track have its largest program delivery year in its history. Due to the lockdown, approximately one third of what would have been delivered was lost. “We still finished the year with just under 1,000 programs delivered,” From says proudly. “We worked with almost 25,000 students last year. We were able to pivot pretty quickly and start to deliver some of our programming virtually through an online digital management system.”
This year, with volunteer access to the physical classroom restricted, JA is again relying on technology. “We’re still teaching all of the same programs,” she explains. “Some schools are doing it virtually, through a digital learning platform. Others are delivering our paper-based program with volunteers joining the classroom using Zoom or Microsoft Teams or some other online technology.” There are currently 750 classes registered for JASA programs this year.
In addition to school-based programs, JA launched a suite of self-directed learning programs at jacampus.org, specifically for children being homeschooled. Indeed, this year across Alberta, 15 per cent of families who would have traditionally been in the school system have chosen some form of home education.
“These self-directed programs will certainly come in handy for these families,” From offers. “There’s a lot of connectivity to the existing Alberta curriculum and learning outcomes for students.”
All JA programs are at no cost to parents and students, and are entirely funded by donors.
Aimed at students in grades three through 12, JASA programming focuses on three pillars – financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship – using a graduated pedagogy. “The pillars are intertwining but also vastly different subject matters,” From explains. “Our pedagogical approach is to start to teach kids the fundamentals of all three of these areas in third grade. We build on that all the way through to grade 12. These pillars are intertwined through all of the different programs. Each program can stand alone or build upon others. It really creates a solid foundation of basic economic education for a young person.”
The financial literacy curriculum teaches key financial concepts, sound financial decision making and the exercise of judgement when offered access to credit. “Possessing the wisdom to understand how much is enough and how much is too much,” From explains. “And bringing that down to a level where a student in third grade can be introduced to those concepts.”
Work readiness is about providing young people with a set of skills and knowledge that makes them more likely to be able to secure and succeed in their chosen occupation. “Some of that is just giving them access to information about what occupations exist and what skillsets may be required so that young people can lay out their own path towards success,” she says.
Entrepreneurship is about the process of discovering new ways of combining resources and innovation and balancing innovation with risk-taking. “It really is an essential part of our ability to succeed in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive global marketplace,” From adds.
The mother of two school-aged children (a daughter in grade three and a son in grade six) herself, From has been with JASA for 10 years, the last four as CEO. Originally from Virden, Manitoba, a small oil and farming town, From spent much of her childhood with her sleeves rolled up doing hard work. “I came from a really hardworking family,” she recalls. “Both my parents grew up on the farm and are incredibly active volunteers in the community and I think that really shaped my experience growing up.”
She attended the University of Saskatchewan to obtain a business degree and got her first job after graduating as a multi-unit manager for Canadian retailer Jacob.
After her husband entered law school in London, Ontario, From took a position with International Justice Mission, a new non-profit that worked in developing countries to rescue victims of sex slavery and forced prostitution. Her job was to build the organization’s support and donor base.
“It was my foray into entrepreneurship,” she reflects. “It was a pretty big risk to leave a stable job and go to a non-profit that was just getting started in a sector I wasn’t familiar with. But it was an incredible opportunity to help build it from the ground up.” While for her first year the goal was simply to raise enough money to pay for her and the other staff member’s salaries, by the time she left three years later, the organization was raising $5 million per year.
She moved to Calgary in 2009 for her husband’s job and took some time off to be with her newborn son. In 2010 she joined JASA as manager of fund development and marketing.
Looking back over the last 10 years, From takes great pride in the students she has watched go through JASA programs: “I’ve had the opportunity to connect with students from 10 years ago, when they were 14,15 and 16 years old. I’ve seen them go through high school, post-secondary and now in the workforce, and many come back and volunteer with us. The opportunity to see that life cycle is so rewarding.”
“I’m a bigger believer today in the importance of the work that we do than I was 10 years ago,” she continues. “The combination of being a parent now to two children in the school system, seeing what they’re learning and what they’re not learning, knowing the importance of this type of education, has certainly driven home the value to me.”
She’s also thankful for the relationships she has built over her years at JA Southern Alberta, both within the organization and the business community. This includes a lengthy (and impressive) list of donors and volunteers.
“We have some incredible partnerships, some that are really legacy partnerships that have been with us through the tests and trials of time,” she says. “One notable is ATCO. Ron Southern was instrumental in bringing Junior Achievement to Calgary in 1960. ATCO has been a partner since.” Other important partners are financial institutions, which help in teaching financial literacy.
The Economic Futures Council – a donor program for individuals and families established eight years ago – has been vital in facilitating the stability and growth of JASA. “These are general funds, which gives us a lot of flexibility in how we use that money,” she explains. “We can put it towards our most urgent need. When COVID happened, we were able to use some of those funds to establish digital programming right away, rather than being delayed by the need to fundraise. It’s been a game changer for us and the students we serve.”
JA’s volunteers – the organization’s ‘secret sauce’ according to From – number more than 1,500 in a given year and come from all walks of life. “They bring so much value into the classroom and the educational experience for young people,” she praises. “They’re incredible individuals who want to be teacher for a day. They’re willing to share their time and experiences.”
JA Southern Alberta’s flagship fundraising event is the Alberta Business Hall of Fame, held every year for the last 17 years, which typically brings in 20 to 25 per cent of its annual budget. Past laureates includes Calgary business greats J.R. Bud McCaig, Alvin G. Libin and Margaret Southern, to name just a few.
This year’s event, originally scheduled for October 22, was cancelled due to COVID and the inductees have yet to be announced. “We would traditionally be hosting 800 to 1,000 of our near and dear supporters to celebrate the 2020 inductees,” From laments. “We have postponed our induction ceremony to April 29, 2021, but there’s still such an air of uncertainty with regards to large social gatherings. We want to make sure we do right by these inductees and honour them in a way that recognizes and pays homage to the great things they’ve done to build our community.”
Postponing the event means JASA’s cash flow is tight. “We need to be careful and manage both sides of our balance sheet,” From says frankly. “Just like every other business in the city we’ve been hit with some hard financial decisions. We do feel relatively stable financially but we also know we’re in the eye of the storm right now. We certainly hope to see the economy recover within Alberta so that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re economically unstable. These are the skills we are teaching our youth and we know that we must role model them.”
With a busy household – From’s weekends are spent chauffeuring her kids to hockey, piano and baseball – the working mom has no plans to let up. She started a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Saskatchewan in September, and is writing a book: “I’m involved with this group called the Better Human Group Inc. It’s about inspiring others to do good and be better humans. We’re publishing a book aimed at teenagers called The Better Human Teenager. It will feature stories from some amazing teens around the world and inspiring messages for young people.”
No matter the future, or how uncertain it is, From’s leadership will be indispensable for JASA and the youth that it serves. Her vision, energy and passion for the cause will help ensure the best possible outcomes for all involved.