AUBURN – Jama Smith runs an auction business. On the side, she tries to sell middle school students on the value of preparing for their future careers, whatever they might be.
“If you think you want to be a rock star, then you probably ought to join the music program, right? If you think you want to be a veterinarian, then you should probably volunteer at the Humane Society,” Smith said.
“You just start going through that mapping process with them,” she said.
Smith is among more than 7,100 people who volunteer for Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana. The mission of the nonprofit JA is to “expose students to basic business concepts and the skills that enable them to understand real-life economics.”
Smith owns Littlejohn Auctions in Auburn and heads up its National Benefit Auctions & Events. She has been a corporate volunteer with JA for about 10 years and led lessons for students in fourth grade through high school.
In recent years, Smith has worked with seventh- and eighth-graders at DeKalb County Central United School District.
She taught three six-session classes this past school year, with about 20 students in each class of JA's “It's My Future” program. Smith follows a lesson plan in which she can provide input based on her own work expertise and experience.
For example, she tells students that the auction company started by her father, James Littlejohn, scours the social media postings of prospective employees to gauge their feelings about work and past employers – and to see whether they write inappropriate posts in general.
“We talk to the kids about that: You cannot crazy post, you can't say bad things about anybody. If you're saying this about your previous boss, I assume you will say it about us,” Smith said.
Other JA lessons deal with researching careers and colleges and self-branding.
“We understand that companies have brands. Then we turn it around: Do you have a brand – when you walk into a room, do people automatically think some things about you? And the answer is yes, they do,” Smith said.
She talks with students on ways to improve their brands and instruct them to report their progress. It might involve helping another student with a school project or refraining from making an ill-suited remark in a class.
All JA lessons are taught at school during school hours with classroom teachers participating. JA of Northern Indiana reached more than 138,000 students in 30 counties during the 2016-17 school year, according to Joni Dietsch, executive vice president of the organization. About 5,100 educators took part.
Although the national JA has developed the classroom curriculum, volunteers “weave their own personal and professional life experiences into it.” Dietsch said.
“It's a new face, and it's a new message, and so it's exciting to kids,” she said. “Sometimes it's a reinforcement of what the teacher is sharing. Sometimes it's a new message. But either way, it lends credibility to what teachers are telling students.”
After attending a two-hour training session, a volunteer visits a classroom five times for an elementary school program, six times for middle school and seven times for high school. Each lesson lasts about 40 minutes. People interested in learning how to volunteer can call 484-2543 or visit jani.org.
JA of Northern Indiana has been a pioneer. According to its website, it was the state's first JA chapter when it incorporated in Fort Wayne in 1952. Twenty years later, it piloted the nation's first in-school program, called Project Business, in Rosetta Curry's class at Lane Middle School in Fort Wayne. The chapter launched the nation's first sixth-grade program, Business Basics, in 1981, and the first 12-grade program, Applied Economics, in 1983.
During the 1990s, JA of Northern Indiana became the national pilot for programs in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and 10th grades.
Smith said that when middle school students are looking at possible career paths, she encourages them to “choose a weird one” if they like as long as they do the research necessary to understand what the job entails and training required.
“You wouldn't just go on a trip and head south to Florida. You would map that out, you would plan your stages on the way,” she said.
“With the seventh- and eighth-graders, we talk about that – it is time to start thinking in that direction,” Smith said. “You start mapping out some things you want to accomplish before you leave middle school, before you leave high school, to get where you are going.”
Name: Jama Smith
Facts: Smith, 47, owns Littlejohn Auctions in Auburn. She and her husband, attorney Thompson Smith, have three children, ages 18, 16 and 15. Smith began volunteering with Junior Achievement about 10 years ago at the suggestion of a downtown Auburn business owner.
Quote: “The No. 1 reason people get fired is attitude. This is important for school, too. So you can use this now, but this is really important for later.”