Spend an hour or so talking with 14-year-old Max Goldman and you’ll walk away smiling and shaking your head, wishing there was a way to bottle his particular blend of enthusiasm, drive and infectious charm.
Max, an eighth-grader, bubbles over with plans. His ideas ricochet around the room as he talks, ranging from his growing interest in pursuing public speaking as a career; his excitement at transferring to an arts-focused school for his coming freshman year, and his gratitude and thanks to the Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest (JAUM) programs that he feels have helped unleash his confidence.
Max is a three-time veteran of the JAUM summer camp program, JA BizTown. He credits his experiences there with both giving him a glimpse into the inner workings of a business community and also with offering him a chance to develop and demonstrate his leadership abilities.
“[The camp] was a week of heaven for me,” says Max with a grin that lights up his face. “It was a combination of people who were really into business who got to act like businesspeople and people who just wanted to have fun at a summer camp.”
JAUM created JA BizTown 10 years ago as a hands-on business simulator designed for kids. It offers both one-day events and the more concentrated full-week summer camp.
At JAUM’s Maplewood headquarters, 10,000 sq. ft. of space has been transformed into a miniature town square, complete with roof-scraping trees, sidewalks, streetlights and about a dozen business fronts. On almost every day of the year, up to 125 squealing, whooping kids descend on the Disney-like setting to spend the day feverishly working in an economy writ small. They apply for jobs as politicians, bankers, radio broadcasters and CEOs of the various businesses, create “products,” negotiate sales, pay bills and generally create an economy in a microcosm.
Max initially became familiar with JA in third grade when his mother, Tera, volunteered to teach the JA school curriculum at his school. It was his Mom who suggested Max might also be interested in the more intensive summer camp program.
“I’ve never been one to be shy,” Max says. “I always like to try new stuff and jump right into it so I decided to run for mayor of JA BizTown my first year.” He pauses for just a moment. “Apparently, it worked,” he says a beat later, and then laughs out loud.
Max’s first stint as JA BizTown mayor came after an “all-out” campaign, even though he had no idea what a mayor actually did. He even put together a PowerPoint® presentation as part of his campaign, coining the slogan, “Take It to the Max!”
His second year, he again ran for and won the role of mayor. (He confides that during his third year at the camp, it was suggested that he might want to give other kids a shot at the job, and he instead happily accepted the post of JA BizTown radio announcer and DJ.)
As he talks, Max and his father, David, a former professional speaker and stand-up comedian-turned-stockbroker, continually trade wisecracks across the table. Both father and son agree that the JA BizTown experiences and later JA opportunities Max has had, including speaking publicly at the JA board meetings and participating in the JA Business Hall of Fame, have been transformative.
Both also think that JA has given Max important real-life successes that he may have missed out on otherwise. In fact, Max is candid about his sometimes-disappointing experiences in his regular public school setting.
“I don’t fit in real well at school,” he says with a shrug. “I’m just kind of a different person. I moved here from Seattle when I was 5, and although everybody was starting fresh in kindergarten, I still felt a little out of place. I was a little different and I had some problems and I didn’t feel very comfortable here until I was in fourth grade. By then, everyone’s already made their friends and decided who’s popular and who’s not. If you go to the same school for eight years, that’s set in stone by third grade.”
Part of the reason Max felt different at school is that he has a mild case of Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder that generally starts in childhood and which causes involuntary muscle movements. In Max’s case, the Tourette’s manifests partly as rapid blinking, and occasional squirming in his chair, but even as his muscles twitch, his bright blue-green gaze stays locked squarely on his visitor. He speaks matter-of-factly about the issue, which he acknowledges but which he doesn’t view as something that will affect his admittedly big plans. In fact, he’s spoken publicly to groups in the past to educate people on the subject of Tourette’s.
“Now with [going to] my new school, I know myself better, I’ve figured myself out more, and I know my personality,” Max says about looking forward to the new school year. “With going to a new high school, I can go in there and have a fresh start and say, ‘This is what I’m like.’”
David Goldman both fully encourages Max’ ambitions and displays evident pride in his accomplishments.
“When he’s on stage, he’s bold, he’s fearless, he’s engaging,” says David. In fact, the former comedian admits that he’s always thought he and his son could perform a stand-up routine together, but on the one occasion when they did perform, “It was stand-up, but it wasn’t what I envisioned. He was the lovable, endearing guy and I had to be the straight man,” he says shaking his head.
Asked about what he thinks the biggest benefit of JA is, Max thinks for a moment before he responds.
“I learned a lot,” he says. “I learned how to help run a community. I’ve always wanted to start a business, and still do. I guess I’m running sort of a freelance thing now…with my public speaking.
“[JA] is about giving opportunities to kids that don’t have them. And with JA, they don’t just say ‘See ya!’ at the end of the camp. If you’re interested, they’ll keep on giving you opportunities, like they have with me. They’ve given me these opportunities and these baby steps and they’ve helped me grow as a person and as a speaker.