Following an extended period of planning, fundraising and implementation, Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania opened its educational JA BizTown in January.

Plans called for groups of students from throughout the region to visit the South Fayette Township experiential learning center, which simulates the day-to-day functions of a thriving community, in conjunction with a comprehensive business-oriented curriculum.

Although COVID-19 is preventing the opportunity to attend in person, the program is being made accessible through videos posted to social media.

“We’re bringing folks into BizTown and showing them what happens while the students are there,” said Dennis Gilfoyle, Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania president and chief executive officer.

The series of videos started with a tour of the complex, which features “storefronts” set up by sponsoring organizations. Following the initial offering was one focusing on one of the sponsors, Cecil Township-headquartered software developer Ansys Inc.

“While we were giving folks a tour of the Ansys ‘store’ in BizTown, we had one of their senior executives on, as well, talking about what Ansys does daily, what the company is all about,” Gilfoyle said. “It was really well-received.”

Other sponsors are participating in a similar manner, with live streaming planned for Thursdays. The videos subsequently will be available in Junior Achievement’s online library.

When conditions allow, the plan is to allow for children and their parents to visit BizTown during the summer.

“We’ll open some of the stores and have them staffed, and kids can come in and learn and perhaps participate in some of the activities,” Gilfoyle said, including those that teach concepts such as, “managing money, running a company, making purchasing decisions and earning a paycheck.”

In the meantime, the nonprofit is offering a teacher and parent resources site, providing access to short videos, JA programs and at-home activities for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We did a lot of listening,” Gilfoyle said. “We contacted a lot of the schools we work with and said, ‘What can we do to help?’”

Highlights of the site include the JA Virtual Speaker Series, a collection of videos filmed by Pittsburgh professionals discussing their career paths, and “Understanding the Financial Impact of COVID-19,” a guide designed for teens. The latter is an extension of financial literacy programs on which Junior Achievement has been focusing, especially since the 2008-09 recession.

In addition to online resources, printed materials are available and can be delivered to those who request them at no cost, according to Gilfoyle.

“At the end of the day, I’m hoping that what we’re doing is helping to keep students in learning mode,” he said.

As is the case with practically everyone, the current situation has served as a learning experience for Gilfoyle, members of his staff and the many volunteers who make Junior Achievement possible.

“I think JA is going to do more and more in the future to develop additional tools that are online-based,” he said, “so, god forbid, if anything of this magnitude were to happen again, we can have some continuing programming.”

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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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