“From a handful of kids to 15 percent of the student population in the area that we serve,” said Bill Coderre, president of the Junior Achievement chapter. “The scope of the organization, in terms of the students that it’s impacting, has grown tremendously.”
The national organization was founded in 1919, chartered in Grand Rapids in 1955, and started reaching out to students in 1956, when 381 students were in the program. It is now the 19th largest of the 146 chapters in the country.
Coderre said in addition to meeting the goal of reaching 60,000 students annually in West Michigan — up from 27,341 as recently as 1999 — by the end of this year there will be 584,000 students who have experienced a Junior Achievement program through this chapter.
“In the last six or seven years we have basically doubled the number of kids that we have served in our first 43 years of existence,” he said. “We’re reaching out to all kids and trying to prepare them so they can succeed in life.”
This year is also a year to show the community what Junior Achievement is about, Coderre said. There will be a new marketing and branding campaign, as well as a drive to identify Junior Achievement alumni and a new strategic plan called Capstone 2011.
“Junior Achievement is more than just kids building widgets,” he said. “We’re a complex economic education organization that’s ingrained in our school system.”
The late Edward Frey, former CEO of Union Bank and Trust Co., founded Junior Achievement of the Grand Rapids Area, now Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes. The chapter reaches students from Grand Rapids into the Upper Peninsula, with offices in Grand Haven, Traverse City and Boyne City.
“It was kind of the city’s answer to 4-H,” Coderre said of Junior Achievement’s beginning, referring to the organization that many rural children take part in to learn more about agriculture and livestock. “The farms had 4-H and animal husbandry, so what do the cities have? They have businesses.”
Coderre said though Junior Achievement started as an after-school program where students ran their own company and produce their own products, now 99 percent of the learning goes on during the school day, with materials that are age-appropriate and designed to meet the education standards for the state. Volunteers from the community come into classrooms and teach students about economics and business.
“It’s not something extra,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be taught. The key is taking the real world and making it relevant to the students.”
Coderre attributes the success of the organization to having a dedicated and committed staff and a high-quality board of directors.
David Frey, former president of Bank-One Western Michigan, and John Bissell, chairman of Bissell Homecare Inc., are honorary co-chairmen of Junior Achievement for this year. Both men have long histories with the organization, both in their personal experiences and in their families.
Frey, grandson of the founder of Union Bank and Trust Co., said that, through various mergers, the original Union Bank, now Chase bank, has continuously sponsored the programs since its inception.
“It’s been a part of our family legacy and a part of our banking legacy,” he said. “I’m a proud person because of my family’s commitments as well as our institution’s commitment.”
Evolving from a time when students would raise capital, create a product, produce that product and close a company during one school year, to its current program where the lesson is integrated into the classroom, Frey said speaks to the flexibility of the organization.
“One of the most admirable aspects or traits of the Junior Achievement in this region is its adaptability, its delivery model to the changing times,” he said.
Frey said he believes Junior Achievement has helped expose students to the world of business who might not otherwise have had the opportunity.
“It’s been a real educational vehicle that fills a vacuum in many public schools where young people do not receive the normal course of education about business,” he said.
Bissell said he, too, is proud of the history he and his family’s company, founded in Grand Rapids in 1876, share with Junior Achievement.
“We’ve got a long-lasting, deep dedication to Grand Rapids and supporting the business community in Grand Rapids,” he said. “When Junior Achievement came in 1955, there was really an immediate embracing of the ideals of Junior Achievement.
“We have been with them since the beginning.”
Bissell said that while there have been many benefits to the community from the organization, his company has been able to reap some specifically.
“We’ve had some great employees from Junior Achievement,” he said, citing Jim Krzeminski, the current executive vice president of production development, sales and marketing for Bissell Homecare, and Dan Heidenga, the category manager for the vacuum cleaner line. “They’re the two that we currently have in management.”
Bissell said he also appreciates the way the organization has changed over the years.
“It’s good community service and community project and very pro-business,” he said. “There are just a lot of people who really give some credit to their original Junior Achievement experience.”
The organization will be celebrating its 50 years at the annual Junior Achievement West Michigan Business Hall of Fame event on June 8. While usually the event is a time to induct business leaders and supporters into the hall of fame, this year it will focus on the organization’s history.