Florida Blue's Karen Thompson Shares Her Experience Volunteering at Local Elementary School

Posted on Aug 1st 2014 by Karen Thompson

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At the end of May, more than 100 Florida Blue employees in Jacksonville, FL left their desks to spend the day teaching the Junior Achievement (JA) curriculum at three local elementary schools. JA is a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to inspire young people to succeed in a global economy.  Their unique approach allows volunteers from the community to deliver their curriculum while sharing their experiences with students.  I was one of those volunteers. When I initially volunteered to participate in the program, I thought it would be a fun day spent with kids teaching them the curriculum which included financial literacy, entrepreneurship and work readiness. What I didn’t realize was how much the kids would teach me. I prepared for the event by reviewing the teaching materials provided by JA. I spent a few hours organizing and sorting booklets, stickers, worksheets and other handouts and practicing how I would teach the lessons. I can barely balance a checkbook, so I was a little nervous about sharing my thoughts about financial literacy! When the big day finally arrived, I pulled into the school parking lot 30 minutes early and sat in the quiet of my car mentally reviewing everything I needed to do. I was ready. I was assigned to a classroom of second grade girls at Fort Caroline Elementary school. We (me and other volunteers for the day) began our day in the teachers’ lounge, being welcomed by the principal, getting acquainted with the school’s history, listening to the descriptions of the kinds of students we would meet and fortifying ourselves with bagels and coffee for the busy day ahead. When I was directed to the classroom where I would spend the day, I cautiously opened the door and peeked in. The room was colorful, the girls were quietly working, the teacher was at her desk and there was a live butterfly exhibit in the corner. This was the perfect place for me—calm and orderly. I walked in and that immediately changed. In a space of about 30 seconds this is what I heard (in rapid fire format): “What’s your name?” “What are you teaching us?” “Will you be here all day?” “Where will you eat lunch?” “Do you have pets?” “Can I be your helper?” “Have you seen our butterflies?” “What’s your name?” “What are you teaching us?” “How old are you?” “Do you have kids?” For the record, I don’t have kids, so all this was a little out of my league. I introduced myself to the class and explained why I was there. I explained that we would have a lot of fun learning about owning a business, paying salaries, earning a paycheck, taxes, voting and most importantly, how to make doughnuts for our imaginary doughnut shop. Once I mentioned doughnuts, I had them—for a few minutes anyway. I spent the morning learning their names, giving instructions and distributing worksheets and crayons. The girls were so eager to participate! Eager hands shot up every time I asked a question or for a volunteer. They shouted over each other to be heard. They jostled each other for a spot close to me. It was amazing to see how excited they were and to experience their voracity for learning. The JA curriculum (called JA in a Day) is specifically designed for each age group and the kids really seemed to enjoy the materials. Believe it or not, it is possible to teach a group of second graders about local government and consumerism in a way that they not only understand, but get excited about. We voted for a mayor, assigned jobs that included female police officers, tax workers and teachers. In a way, we created a real community in our classroom and the girls loved it. Before I knew it, it was lunch time and I left the girls to meet with the other volunteers in the teachers’ lounge. We all had that frazzled look about us, but we spent our lunch comparing notes about how GREAT the kids were. The fear had dissipated and we were really enjoying the time spent with them and looking forward to getting back in the classrooms. After lunch, the girls brought their already high energy level up a couple of notches. It was also a few days before summer break so attention spans were short. It would take some real creativity to get them back on track. I knew just what to do. It was time to make the doughnuts! Even though they were paper doughnuts, the girls enjoyed filling them with flavors (red crayons were cherry, blue crayons were blueberry and yellow crayons were lemon) and decorating them with imaginary sprinkles. Then we opened our business, sold the doughnuts and paid our workers’ salaries. They got a real lesson in economics. Like all of us, a few of them said “Hey, that’s not fair!” when they had to give back some of their funny money for taxes. For me, the last hour of the day was the best. Not because I was exhausted (which I was), but because that’s when the girls each took a moment to sign the JA banner I brought so I could hang it at my desk back at work. I also let them take control over the photo app on my phone and each of the girls took a photo with me and mugged for the camera with their BFFs. As I write this, the JA banner they all signed hangs on my cubicle wall. Their sentiments read “Love it – it was fun!” “Glad you were here today,” “I like how you told us what to do,” and “Love you, happy day.” They drew flowers and hearts just like all second grade girls love to do. It’s one of my favorite things in my cube. I mentioned early on that the kids taught me a lot during my time spent with them. Here are just a few of the many things I learned:
  • Kids want to feel special. They loved getting called upon and helping me. Even the smallest tasks made them feel 10 feet tall.
  • Kids are hungry for knowledge. They took to the material like a fish to water. They asked great questions and stayed engaged all day.
  • Kids are funny! They loved telling jokes and being silly. We should all be reminded that work is always better when you laugh throughout the day.
  • Kids really are the future. Invest in them. They will be our teachers, our police, our mayors, our doughnut shop owners in just a few short years. What we teach them now goes a long way.
JA in a Day was such a rewarding day for me and so important for the kids and their schools. If you are interested in finding out how you can volunteer when school is back in session, visit their website at www.juniorachivement.org.

Filed under: Community  

Karen Thompson

Karen Thompson is a Communications Consultant for Florida Blue. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her two rescued pit bulls and hanging out with her friends and family. You can follow her on Twitter at @ktmarieFL.

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Karen, nice article and so pleased that Florida Blue continues to impact our community.

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