AUBURN, Wash. — Money management is a critical skill for any adult to know. But it's one that many don't learn until they have their own finances, household budgets, and debt.
A local nonprofit is on a mission to change that. Junior Achievement of Washington aims to teach students at a young age and set them up for success.
Angela Poe Russell sat down with the nonprofit's President and CEO Natalie Vega O'Neil to learn more about their work.
RUSSELL: For those who aren't familiar what is Junior Achievement?
VEGA O’NEIL: Junior Achievement is a nonprofit organization that focuses on students kindergarten through 12th grade. We provide financial literacy work and career readiness and entrepreneurial skills to students who are interested in learning about how businesses can contribute to thriving communities, how money works and how they can turn their passions and interest into profitable careers.
RUSSELL: Yeah, that's real-life help.
VEGA O’NEIL: Absolutely. We're teaching kids skills and educating them in areas that they don't get otherwise. And that's why we're really unique and our focus around work and career readiness and business and financial literacy.
RUSSELL: We are actually in Finance Park. So tell people what that is.
VEGA O’NEIL: Yeah. So, we have two programs at our facility in Auburn at our JA Education Center, and one is our Finance Park facility. So it's for middle school and high school students. They leave behind their adolescent lives and have avatars for the day, where they become adults who have jobs and expenses and budgets and families. They really get a sense of what it's like to have to balance a budget and have to successfully save, successfully invest and pay off expenses. And so Harborstone is a major partner for ours here and really looking at how to teach kids to pay themselves first, to save to spend smartly and to make good healthy financial decisions.
RUSSELL: I think what strikes me about this is oftentimes when people do talk to kids about money, it's just that. They're talking to them. And I think it's notable that this feels experiential.
VEGA O’NEIL: Absolutely. We really believe in giving kids hands-on experiences when it comes to learning. It's a tried-and-true way that young kids learn. It's a tried-and-true way that humans learn. And so, giving them these hands-on experiences really makes a difference and having them interact directly with volunteers. A lot of them who are professionals from these business industries that are represented in our parks make a big difference for them to get these hands-on experiences and learn how money works.
RUSSELL: When I look at Finance Park and all of your partners including Harborstone, it just seems like you wouldn't be able to do the work without them.
VEGA O’NEIL: Absolutely. Our partnerships are really what gives us the ability to bring our programs to students across the state. Our corporate partners, our in-kind partners, our volunteers and our donors are really what gives us our joy and our opportunity to be able to work with students directly.
RUSSELL: So you have a big fundraiser coming up, Dare to Dream.
VEGA O’NEIL: Dare to Dream is Junior Achievement of Washington's largest fundraiser of the year. This is our 25th anniversary of this event. We hold it in partnership with the Mariners and Alaska Airlines on the field at T-Mobile Park. We're so thrilled to be able to honor those that helped start the event 25 years ago and the impact it's had on tens of thousands of kids over the past 25 years. And we're really excited to bring over 600 guests to learn about Junior Achievement, to get some inside experiences with the Mariners, who are a long-term partner of ours, and just to have a really fun evening – have a five-course dinner, live auction, a silent auction and a lot of fun.
RUSSELL: So what kind of auction items can we expect?
VEGA O’NEIL: We have a great live auction this year with really exciting experiences and trips and opportunities. Some of my favorites are a trip to New York, which includes theater tickets, a tour of the Nordstrom flagship store in New York City, as well as some shopping. That comes with airfare as well. We have a wonderful week at a penthouse in Belize that also includes airfare. We have a great winery tour in Woodinville that includes a private tour with the winemakers and some food and snacks and a limo ride. And then we have wonderful other opportunities to just support the work that we do from a programmatic perspective to help support our K-12 programming.
RUSSELL: That’s awesome. You know, when you think about all of your programs and the work you do here, what do you hope kids are taking away?
VEGA O’NEIL: Yeah, I truly believe that all of our opportunities to meet our basic needs are tied to financial health and wellness. And so, if we teach students at a very young age about how they can make smart financial choices, they can have all of their basic needs met when it comes to health and medical, mental health and wellness, housing security, food security, education, and we really want to teach that to them because they're not learning these skills anywhere else. We really try to demystify money at Junior Achievement, teach kids what it means to be smart and make smart money choices, and then how they can have profitable careers that bring them success and contribute positively to thriving communities.
RUSSELL: So do you just love your work?
VEGA O’NEIL: I love my job. I love what I do. I've worked in nonprofits for over 25 years. I've always felt that the missing link in my dedication to youth sector services and education was really teaching families and kids about money and really talking about how you can be a smart money manager for yourself and your families.