GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Bill Coderre sits in a unique seat. He’s charge of an organization that impacts tens of thousands of school-aged children each year across 50 counties in Michigan. It’s a role he’s in because of the experience he had as a kid through the same organization he leads, Junior Achievement.

“When I was a high school student in the JA Company program myself, I just had a wonderful experience. And when I went to college, I just wanted to give back and so I volunteered, did an internship with JA my senior year of college,” Coderre said. “My work here is both a vocation and an avocation, which has always enabled me to look at how can we change lives of kids through our program.”

Coderre is the president and CEO of Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes. He’s been part of the organization for 40 years and has helped it through tremendous growth to better serve students’ needs in a modern setting.

“What we’re finding is really the need for our students to really see the relevance of what they’re learning in school, how that applies to the real world,” Coderre said.

To do that, Coderre and his team have been working for years to create a space to bring the education from the classroom to life. By the end of this year, they will have three capstone programs up and running in their Huizenga Family Junior Achievement Free Enterprise Center: JA BizTown, JA Finance Park and the JA Entrepreneurship Incubator.

“What happens in this environment is that kids have so much fun, they don’t understand or realize the learning that has taken place,” Coderre said of JA BizTown, which opened in April. “Kids walk away from here better prepared for that next year in school, for understanding the economy that they work in.”

JA BizTown is set up like a fully functioning town. There’s a city hall, a Meijer, a Bissell, Corewell Health and even a Chic-fil-A. Students in fourth through sixth grades have already gone through at least 12 weeks in the classroom learning about the principles of financial literacy, workforce readiness, business management, community and economic building and collaboration. At the end of their experience, they get a one-day lesson in JA BizTown where they run a West Michigan-like town as workers and citizens of West Michigan-like businesses.

A look down Main Street in JA BizTown.

“It just creates these ‘aha!’ moments for the kids that again connect the dots of what they’re learning in school, how it relates to the real world,” Coderre said.

The JA Finance Park is set up for students between eighth and 12th grade. It’s a mall of sorts, each storefront a realistic responsibility they may encounter in the working world. Here, the students build and balance a budget for a typical family in West Michigan. They’re assigned a career and income and make real-time decisions to learn financial literacy.

“They come in, they get an iPad. It says you’re an electrical engineer, you’re making $98,000. The first thing they do is they go from gross income to net income and I’m telling you, if doors are not shut, the air gets sucked out of the room and the doors close as they really see the first impact of taxes,” Coderre said. “Then they start making decisions. So that electrical engineer goes to housing and decides, ‘Well, I’m going to buy a 5,000-square-foot McMansion amortized over 30 years.’ The iPad allows the transaction to happen. And so they’re continuing. They go to utilities and they learn about water, sewer, gas. And they have to plug in a number and they plug in $70. Well, the iPad blows up on them and says, ‘Wait a minute, you just bought a 5,000-square-foot home. Your average cost on utilities is $700 a month.'”

The invaluable lessons aren’t taught in text or books, but rather through experience.

All of it is made possible by volunteers, who share work and career skills through traditional programs or one-day classroom events or support the day programs at the Huizenga Family Free Enterprise Center.

“It is absolutely imperative for Junior Achievement to be successful (that) we have volunteers not only that come back year after year, but also new volunteers that come in and be part of this exciting organization,” Ron Foor, a Mercantile Bank and JA volunteer, said.

Foor has been volunteering for 20 years. He started on a whim two decades ago and keeps coming back because of the impact the work has on helping build community.

“I was actually attending a Park Party with Maranda and I was there and I was talking and I had this little tug on my shirt sleeve,” Foor said. “It was one of my kids and he wanted to introduce me to his mom and to his uncle and to all his siblings. He was so excited that he had this connectivity in the community.”

The nonprofit is always looking for volunteers who want to make an impact, with a number of ways to get involved. They offer traditional programs in classrooms K-12 and day-of events. There are speaking opportunities or bigger events that call for community members to attend or volunteer. It’s one of the easiest ways to make an impact through JA. It’s how Foor and Coderre both got their start with the group. Now, a combined 60 years of JA experience later, it has not only positively impacted their lives, but also thousands of young minds who have gone to to be better stewards in their communities.

“Fifty-one percent of all JA alumni are either in or have been in the same career as their JA volunteer,” Coderre said. “So you have all these businesses that want to impact the talent pipeline. Well, become a JA volunteer. You’re gonna make that happen.”

Learn more about volunteering or the programs offered at JA here.