With the holiday season comes many a grandparent, aunt and uncle asking their young relatives: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Children throughout the region can have an opportunity to provide more informed answers to that question when Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania in South Fayette Township opens the interactive JA BizTown.

Maria Gabriel and Gwen Rodi

Gwen Rodi, vice president of the South Fayette Township Board of Commissioners, presents a "key to the city" to South Fayette student Maria Gabriel as the honorary first mayor of JA BizTown.

The first group of students, from Claysville Elementary in McGuffey School District, will visit Jan. 28 for a learning experience that features 20 simulated storefronts sponsored by area businesses, with students assigned corresponding “jobs” for the day.

“Our aim in working with the sponsors is to come to terms with what those jobs or those positions are as they relate to their companies, and what they need as far as their hiring trends are concerned,” Dennis Gilfoyle, Junior Achievement president and chief executive officer, explained. “We want to be sure we’re showcasing opportunities for young people that are genuine and authentic, not make-believe.”

For example, Giant Eagle Inc., which had the first completed JA BizTown storefront, offers the positions of CEO, chief financial officer, grocery team leader and service team leader, plus a pharmacy leader who, in this context, will put together first-aid kits and make posters to promote healthy living.

Other sponsors represent such fields as health care, energy, entertainment, banking and finance, contracting and construction, information technology, manufacturing, retail, skilled trades, nonprofit organizations and the media.

“We can accommodate 125 students at a time,” Maura Teti, director of JA’s Capstone educational programs, said. “Some of the job roles will be duplicated, so we have about 100 unique jobs that are within the 20 companies.”

Donating their service to design the 10,000 square feet of JA BizTown were architects from the downtown Pittsburgh firm IKM Inc

“Before, this was a laboratory space. It had a pretty low ceiling. It was a little bit claustrophobic,” IKM principal Matt Hansen said. “We thought if we could get rid of the ceiling and really lift the volume of the space, there are a lot of studies that show how much that impacts learning.”

The approach had another purpose.

“By making the decision to really expose the structure, expose the mechanicals and expose the communications systems, that would help us get a little more height. It would also be informative in terms of what systems go into a building to make it work,” Hansen explained. “Not hiding that stuff, and actually celebrating it, was in alignment of what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

His firm has worked with school districts on buildings that take innovative approaches to learning.

“In looking at what JA does, it’s a tremendous but also unique way of learning and providing kids with an experience that is different than what they’d get in their math class or social studies class,” he said. “It’s a hands-on activity that kids can really get into. And so it was a perfect fit for us in terms of what we wanted to pursue from an education perspective, and also a great chance for us to contribute to a great organization.”

For Gilfoyle, the opening of JA BizTown meets the goal he’s had for a couple of decades of joining Junior Achievement locations that offer similar programs.

“With that comes the opportunity for us to reach out to the schools and get them recruited,” he said. “That’s really a challenge we do have to undertake because schools are being asked to pay for their participation.

“But the value of what they’re getting in their education, I think, you can almost say it’s priceless: the education they get about making connections with what they’re learning in school to kind of a real-life endeavor here. It can stay with you the rest of your life.”

As opening day nears, Teti has been working with Kim Cowden, Junior Achievement marketing specialist, and Ashley Podrasky, marketing assistant, on all kinds of JABizTown aspects that will appeal to visitors, young and older, alike. As Cowden said she’d like to hear them remark:

“Wow! I want to come back, and I want to tell everybody about this.”

For more information, visit www.JAWesternPA.org.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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