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Grant will help Junior Achievement of Central Illinois expand its reach within Greater Peoria schools

Mary Pille, president of JA Central Illinois
Mary Pille, president of Junior Achievement of Central Illinois.

Junior Achievement of Central Illinois has big plans underway that will impact Peoria area schools, after receiving a $7,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois.

Junior Achievement (JA) of Central Illinois has been around for 75 years. The organization sends trained community volunteers into schools around the area to educate K-12 students on three different pathways aimed at fostering students' success now, and in the future in a global economy. These pathways include education on financial literacy, work and career readiness, and entrepreneurship.

Mary Pille, president of JA of Central Illinois, says almost all schools in this area have enlisted JA to come into their classrooms.

"My dream would be that every student in Central Illinois has a chance to have some (Junior Achievement) experiences and be able to benefit from that."
Mary Pille, president of Junior Achievement of Central Illinois

“The easier question to answer is which schools don't have JA, because we have a pretty good impact in Peoria specifically. We’re in Peoria public schools … and then of course the surrounding areas as well, say East Peoria, Bartonville, Morton, you name it, we’re there. I think we're in about 116 schools around our territory,” says Pille.

This upcoming school year, JA is estimated to educate roughly 16,000 students beginning in July. This large impact and reach the nonprofit has is made possible only through the generosity of donors, foundation grants, and other corporate supporters, which is why the recent grant gifted by the Community Foundation is so pivotal.

“The investment that we received from the Community Foundation will be used to implement JA classroom programs right here in Central Illinois. That funding will pay for around 225 students in Peoria county to have Junior Achievement. There’s no charge to the schools. We raise all of the money locally to impact the schools,” said Pille.

While there’s no doubt that a program like JA encourages students and assists them in finding a potential pathway towards a successful future, that path has been made much foggier, and more difficult to locate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically for high school seniors, questions of whether to take a gap year, go into the workforce, or seek higher education have never been more prevalent, or more anxiety inducing.

Pille said JA has definitely noticed this shift in mindset as well.

“We did a survey about this, JA USA did, that there were some students, particularly high school students, who maybe pushed paused on going right into college right after high school and maybe decided to go straight into the workforce as opposed to taking that leap, and just taking a step back to re-evaluate, you know, what is it I want to do. And that’s a good decision to make,” says Pille.

If there’s anything the pandemic has shed light on, it’s that things can change at the drop of the hat. The unknowns can make planning anything, let alone your future, a daunting task. What’s becoming less important is having a clear cut, straight and narrow path to success. Instead, flexibility seems to be the name of the game, and Pille emphasized that students, or anybody, don’t need to have all the answers right now.

“I think as long as you have some kind of a goal that you can strive for, that's the important thing, and you can make changes down the road,” Pille said.

Additionally, while Pille says going to college is a great choice for some, JA recognizes that college isn’t the right choice for everyone. For those students, JA still works hard to put them on a path to success.

“We believe that we need to meet students where they are … and help them ascertain what are they good at … also helping them connect the dots between what they’re good at and what kind of livelihood they could achieve by doing a certain occupation, and it’s not a one size fits all,” she explains.

Pille also points out that while data shows that people who have a bachelor's degree may make more money over their lifetime, the price you pay for that college degree may not be worth it if it involves a high amount of student loan debt. Considering the return of investment on the college degree is a crucial factor that is often overlooked.

Regardless of what pathway students decide to take, thinking about the future is a long-term process. JA plants the initial seed in kindergarteners, and hopes students continue to consider what the program teaches them throughout the course of their education. And for the students who are nearing high school graduation, Pille says self-hope and self-belief in your own capabilities, as well as research into your interests and having a game plan will take you a long way.

For now, Pille says Junior Achievement’s future looks bright, and will continue helping all students through their unique discovery process.

“My dream would be that every student in Central Illinois has a chance to have some JA experiences and be able to benefit from that … students that have a chance to have JA, they outperform their peers that haven't had a chance to have it…these students are our future, they are our future workforce, and we want them to be the best they can be, and we’d also love for them to be the best they can be right here in Central Illinois.”

For more information on Junior Achievement and the work they do within Central Illinois, visit their website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.