This year will be a milestone one for Junior Achievement, an organization that has been connecting the business community with local youth for 50 years.

The JA program takes local business professionals and brings them into Whitley County classrooms to talk about finance, economics and entrepreneurship.

“It helps to bring the school and community together,” JA Board Treasurer Scott Duffitt said. “This brings an outside professional or business person into the classroom to make that connection to life outside of the classroom.”

In the beginning, JA brought enterprising teenagers together to run their own small businesses, with experienced local professionals teaching them the necessary skills and concepts along the way. The students had to handle every aspect from idea to research and development to product launch and see how profitable they could make this business.

Taking the idea of running a small business and making it a little more accessible, the JA program took this educational experience a step further in 1996 with the creation of “BizTown” and “Finance Park” in Fort Wayne where students not only learn about these concepts, but they get to see them at work.

“The kids get to go into a real city setting where they have jobs and the responsibility of earning a paycheck and paying bills,” Hyndman said. “If you’re a business owner you’re making sure your product gets out the door and making sure you have money to pay employees.”

Still utilizing the real-world experiences, JA has also embraced the one-to-one technology concept and are bringing the curriculum to a virtual audience and even offering the chance for students to experience a fast-tracked “JA in a day.”

“Our goal is to reach every kid at every grade level,” Duffitt said. “We’re not quite there yet and we just continue to look for opportunities to reach more kids.”

Oftentimes, the skills JA brings, especially pertaining to personal finance and entrepreneurship, get lost in the shuffle of a traditional academic curriculum in favor of topics that will be covered on the next standardized test. Thankfully, 50 years later, teachers continue to seek out JA’s expertise to help set their students up for financial success when they become adults with jobs, bills and responsibilities.

“You still need to know finances and outlook and I think that’s what we bring them,” Linda Hyndman, JA board member, said. “If anything we want them to be educated adults and making good decisions because a bad decision early in life can follow them for a long time.”