When Emma Thomas and David Sauer talk about their Junior Achievement volunteer experience, the first thing they do is share a thick pile of heartfelt, scribbled ‘thank you’ notes from former Junior Achievement students—many embellished with fanciful stick-figure art. “And I’m often drawn in a full evening gown, which I promise you I do not wear when teaching second-graders,” Thomas says with a chuckle. The sheets are all notes of appreciation from various second- and third-graders who attend Urban Academy Charter School in St. Paul, each of whom has been in a Junior Achievement program taught by Thomas and Sauer. The school serves more than 320 kids in grades K-6, largely recent immigrants and students of color.
Both Thomas and Sauer are employed by Securian, a financial services group with headquarters in St. Paul, and 6,400 associates nationwide. The two have volunteered multiple times in recent years to teach day-long Junior Achievement classes to groups at Urban Academy, and they say the funny, sweet notes from the kids are just one reason they continue to volunteer for Junior Achievement again and again.
Securian has long been a strong supporter of both Junior Achievement and Urban Academy. The partnership between the school and the company got its start because Urban Academy was formerly located just a block or so away from Securian’s headquarters. That proximity led leaders from both organizations to create a “reading buddy” program, wherein employees from Securian walked over to the school and spent an hour or more each week reading and being with the kids. (Today that mentoring program continues, even after Urban Academy relocated to a different campus much farther from downtown. More than 80 kids are bused to Securian headquarters each Tuesday, where they take over a portion of the plaza so that employees can continue to read with and mentor the children.)
From that simple start, the relationship between Securian and Urban Academy has continued to deepen and expand. It now encompasses a number of Securian volunteers teaching a variety of Junior Achievement classes within Urban Academy. Each year the company fields up to 100 different volunteers who support Junior Achievement, including JA BizTown as well as various other programs at the school.
“I’ve been most involved with the JA in a Day program, which is an awesome way to spend a day with the kids and have an impact,” Sauer says. “I used to do that with another friend who worked here and we teamed up and taught a class. He left the company about the same time that Emma was coming in, so the two of us partnered up. We’ve mostly taught second and third-graders, which has been a blast. They’re always spunky and little sponges, ready to learn.” Thomas agrees, noting that she finds working with the kids in the Junior Achievement program both “hilarious” and deeply rewarding.
“The same things are always a hit, like the doughnut exercise, which is really about different means of production, individual producer vs. an assembly line,” Thomas says about the Junior Achievement class material. “There’s also a ‘money song’ about how money moves through a community. The kids get up and dance and sing to it. It’s a really good time. Each year, JA incorporates more fun things [to the classroom training].”
Both Thomas and Sauer say that they find volunteering with the full support of Securian to be personally enriching. They also say that it makes them feel good to work for a company that wholeheartedly supports the mission of student-focused programs such as Junior Achievement.
“One of the amazing things about Securian is that, not only with JA but with other volunteering opportunities, they give their associates a wide variety of ways to engage,” Thomas says. “If you have a day, you can do JA in a Day or JA BizTown. If you have an hour a week available, you can work as a reading buddy. There’s multiple opportunities for associates at all levels. From the corporate standpoint, Securian has always been extremely community-focused. It’s part of our values, and Securian makes it easy for our associates to volunteer in different ways. They don’t just talk the talk, they really walk the walk.”
Sauer concurs, noting that he also feels inspired by the example set by the leaders at the company. “Our leaders are personally involved in certain funding missions and you’ll always see not only middle management but upper management at these volunteer events because they truly want to give back to our community,” he says. “They feel like it’s the right thing to do, but people also love to do it because that’s just the culture at Securian.”