She is composed, articulate and passionate about a wide range of interests, including her participation in a variety of Junior Achievement programs that began when she was in kindergarten.
Yasha, whose piercing-blue eyes fix steadily on a visitor during a conversation in her hometown of Hudson, WI, is effusive in her praise of JA. She says the experiences she had in the program meant a tremendous amount to her during her elementary school years and provided her with skills that she’s put to use in a number of settings.
JA sponsors a number of targeted, age-appropriate classes designed to expose young students to the concepts of financial literacy, business and entrepreneurship. In addition, the JA curriculum also reinforces practices such as developing leadership skills and working as a team toward a greater goal.
As she prepares to begin 7th grade, Yasha says her early and continuing exposure to JA at Willow River Elementary School contributed to both her understanding of business principles and to her confidence. In fact, she says the skills she learned during JA lead her to campaign for—and win—the coveted post of mayor at the JA BizTown simulator program last year.
“Willow River did a lot with Junior Achievement, so I’ve been taking it since kindergarten,” says Yasha. “In kindergarten it’s mostly games, and that’s when they start teaching you how to figure out things about money and how to use it. I think that’s a skill you should start building at an early age. And I remember in second grade, we had to create pretend doughnut shops,” she says with a grin.
The JA concept focuses on gradually introducing students to the principles that promote successful business creation and ownership. With the generous help of volunteers from the business community, youngsters get to experience both the practical and the creative aspects of creating their own businesses.
“It was mostly about learning about business and entrepreneurs in the elementary levels,” says Yasha. “By fourth grade, we had to start making up our own ideas for businesses and writing out how much we’d spend on different things. I think my idea back then was for a shop selling rugs, although I don’t know why,” she says with a laugh. “In fifth grade, we also did a lot of simulation-type things and in sixth grade, it was mostly JA BizTown. We were learning about business ideas so that we’d actually be prepared.”
JA BizTown is a program where students work in a variety of business enterprises in an intensive, one-day experiment in constructing a working town economy.
In keeping with the overall skill sets that JA hopes to encourage, students interact in JA BizTown in a number of ways, from running local shops to working on-air at the JA BizTown radio station. Students also have the opportunity to campaign for elected roles such as mayor.
“I really didn’t have much of an advertisement campaign, although there were some other kids who did,” says Yasha about her decision to run for mayor of JA BizTown. “There were about 15 kids running for mayor and what I did was put a lot of time into preparing my speech. My speech was about how I would try to influence JA BizTown so we would all work together as a community rather than a dictatorship.”
Yasha, who has aspirations of being an author some day, says the act of fashioning her speech and then delivering it to the 160-or-so students had a powerful impact on her.
“[Being elected] kind of taught me that people are going to listen and be interested in words,” she says about crafting her speech. “It was definitely an interesting job. You have a lot of responsibility. My feet were sore at the end of the day from running around!”
Yasha’s mother, Eden Penn, admits that she and her husband, Tony Bol, are so proud of Yasha’s speech that they framed it and have it hanging in their house. Penn also says that she’s seen firsthand the effect JA has had on her daughter.
“Yasha’s got a lot of gusto and she likes to work with groups so I think that was really a good fit for her,” says Penn about the JA programs, including JA BizTown. “You’re learning skills about how to work with other people and how to work in a broader setting outside of what school might be. Those skills cross over to simple things like just going out to the grocery store and interacting with people. Particularly among kids at that age, it’s the idea of learning diplomacy and the ability to navigate through, and I think she did really well with all of that.”
For now, Yasha’s interests continue to spread far and wide as she investigates a variety of experiences that intrigue her. A teacher recently recommended she attend a weeklong summer camp in WashingtonD.C. that teaches leadership skills and gives students the opportunity to interact with real politicians. For the fourth time, Yasha is also attending a much-loved summer camp focused on the Harry Potter characters—a book series she loves—where students create puppets and then write and perform their own plays using them. She is exploring taking writing classes at The Loft and also plans to take a sewing class, something she’s always wanted to do. Elsewhere in her busy summer schedule will be classes at the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY), a program designed to provide academic enrichment courses for exceptional students.
And of course, Yasha says she’s also looking forward to continuing her participation with JA this fall as she starts her junior high career. Asked what she would tell a friend who’d never heard of JA about the program, she says, “I would tell them that it works to tell you about real-life resources and businesses and entrepreneurs. It teaches you about the real world and it’s very effective at it.”