Helping young girls on the First Coast learn how to handle money

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The Florida-Times Union
By: Kate Howard
October 21, 2010

Junior Achievement project aids in crucial skill.

Jada Eason is 11, and she knows she already has money troubles.

Whenever Jada has gotten a little money, for her birthday or for chores, she spent it as fast as she could. But after an afternoon talking about checkbook registers, saving strategies and hard work, Jada has gained a slightly new perspective.

"Spending is something I need to work on," she said. "I know now you shouldn't spend it all."

Jada takes part in a financial literacy-based program called JAGirl$, hosted by her after-school youth leadership group, Remmer Girls. Some of the girls in the group are dealing with poverty and homelessness; checkbooks and savings accounts are unfamiliar, if not foreign territory.

At a time when Florida is No. 2 nationwide in foreclosures and unemployment in metro Jacksonville is almost 12 percent, much of the discussion about money is often fixed on financial disaster. But a few groups in town are focusing on teaching young people about personal finance in hopes they'll convert smart allowance spending into successful financial strategies as adults.

The JAGirl$ program, an offshoot of youth financial nonprofit Junior Achievement, reaches a thousand girls each year who are raised in all parts of the financial spectrum. The eight-week program concentrates on the economic education of girls ages 8-18. The program was piloted in Jacksonville three years ago, and has now spread internationally.

"In Duval County, we saw statistics that said in one year, 1,600 teenage girls become mothers," said Elizabeth Paulson, program manager for Junior Achievement of North Florida. "Poverty is generational, and often nothing changes in the next generation. We saw this and said, 'We can help.'"

Check out the photo gallery of JAGirl$

Ellen Reed, a JAGirl$ volunteer who is teaching the Remmer Girls, knows about poverty. Now the president of Solar EOS, a training center for professionals in the solar industry, Reed learned about money the hard way - living broke at her financial rock bottom and eating Ramen noodles in her 20s.

"The most important thing I learned is that every penny doesn't have to burn a hole in your pocket," Reed said.

Now she's standing before a group of a dozen girls each week, answering questions about how much money she makes and her own spending habits. She's been humbled by the motivation and drive she sees in the pre-teen girls.

"I've learned a lot about myself," she said.

Children of single mothers are at a greater risk for being raised in poverty, and nearly 45 percent of births in 2005 in Jacksonville were to unwed mothers, according to a Jacksonville Children's Commission study. It's likely that many of the girls in school learning about finances today will be the head of a household in the next decade.

Helping young mothers

The JAGirl$ program, which includes games, lectures and hands-on lessons from community volunteers, is offered in churches, elementary schools as well as through charities that help young mothers. Leaders and volunteers say they may be able to do the most good in groups like the Remmer Girls, where a handful of participants each year are actually living at Community Connections Jacksonville, a family services nonprofit.

"Some of their mothers are also going through financial literacy classes," said Lisa Jackson, who leads the Remmer Girls leadership group. "We tell them we want you to be leaders among your peers, and within your families."

Another program for high school students, male and female, is focused on the dangers of debt. JALACARE, a venture led by the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, trains lawyers to go into schools and teach the students who will in a few short years be bombarded with offers of credit cards and student loans.

April Charney, a senior staff attorney with Legal Aid, believes that children see discount offers and advertisements that imply credit is a relief from debt, without understanding it's the cause of it.

"Financial literacy is as important as any other kind of literacy," Charney said. "We need to be raising up powerful consumers from the very first time they step into school."

That education must also start at home with allowances and keeping children involved in money discussions, according to Martha Cox, vice president of Family Foundations. Her own 14-year-old son gets an allowance and is responsible for paying for things he wants, using eBay and video game trade-ins to make money on things he no longer needs.

The most important thing, Cox said, is to let kids in on the discussions on budgeting, especially when things go awry or a parent loses a job. Children will learn about your money successes and mistakes sooner or later anyway, and without information they could stick to what they know in their own money management.

"Money tends to be one of those things in families that we don't want to talk about," Cox said, "but it should be one of our children's earliest lessons."

kate.howard@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4697

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