Voices of AmeriCorps: Brian Rakovitis



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Brian Rakovitis is serving with the United Way of Washtenaw County

In early December I attended an after-school program at a local Elementary in Washtenaw County. Every Thursday the after school program has its club sessions, which are designed to expose youth to a wide and diverse range of topics, including music, art, dance, reading, math, languages, business and more. On this particular night I was observing the business club with the goal of understanding how financial literacy and the FDIC Money Smart program could be included in the club’s content.

I entered the elementary school through one of the side doors. Children were excitedly hurrying in and out of the school building; many were bolting for their parents cars, looking to leave the school day behind. The school was a standard, rectangular, tan brick building. Inside the hallways were narrow, and the chairs were child size. Papers, hats, coats and school supplies were strewn about and art projects dressed the walls. Uncertain as to where I needed to go, I asked the first adult I could find. Luckily, the first person I asked, Mr. A, was part of the program. Mr. A is a taller gentleman in his late twenties. He wore his hair in dreads and a Jamaican inspired green, red and black striped knitted cap. In a friendly manner, he shook my hand and told me I was in the right place when I asked where the after-school program was. We located my contact Ms. K.

Ms. K was the site coordinator and was already hard at work trying to wrangle the children who were running to and from the small classroom. Ms. K is a blonde woman in her mid-twenties. She stood barely taller than many of the children she cared for, yet you could tell she was the boss and all the children knew it. She persuaded the students to sit down at the short tables and have an after school snack. Many of the kids were less than pleased about the meal situation. They groaned at the thought of eating raw vegetables and many only ate the chips and salsa. I found out later that the salsa was sometimes replaced with pizza sauce when the school’s money was running low. I felt a slight nauseous feeling at the thought of eating chips and pizza sauce. Ms. K invited me to sit and chat with the students until they were finished with snack time and club started.

Chatting with the students was a bit awkward initially. They were noticeably cautious about interacting with a random adult. However, after a few minutes of talking and asking questions, as well as the realization that I was not going to leave, the students seemed to ease up and speak more freely with me.

I began to have a conversation with a 3rd grader name Timmy. Timmy happened to be in business club last semester and was excited for another semester of the club. He described how they created a business, made goods and sold them to other students in a market at the end of the semester in order to earn after-school bucks!

Mr. A and Ms. K called attention to the front of the room. The children were less than attentive until Mr. A. called out, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice raise your hand.” Very few did. He called out again, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice and your butts are in your seats, raise your hand.” More students took notice this time and raised their hand. Once more Mr. A called out, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice and your butts are in your seats, and you are quiet, raise your hand.” By then most students had heard his calls and finally settled down.

Ms. K took over calling out the club assignments, and shuttling kids to different rooms for their club activities. Business club, however, stayed in the room and Ms C. began with a get to know you exercise. Ms. C was an undergrad with the local University. She was patient and persistent as many of the children were still focusing. We said our names and some food we didn’t like to eat. Timmy stood next to me, showing me the ropes of different games and activities. Occasionally he would lose focus and act out, like some of the other kids. These moments were typically brief, but more frequent with some students.

Finally, we got to the main activity of business club; the students, alone or in pairs, were to develop a business plan. Timmy asked if I would like to be part of his business and I accepted. I also accepted two or three more offers. I think perhaps the students wanted help with understanding the instructions.

We found ourselves brainstorming company names and products we would make and sell. Timmy and I thought about what we could make in this classroom. Timmy was only interested in one thing. Ice Cream! I said, “Ok Timmy, what will be our name?” Timmy was stumped, I said Timmy, “What is a super cool name?” Timmy looked up and excitedly said “Super Cool Ice Cream Store! And we will sell strawberry flavored ice cream.” I asked Timmy if he wanted any other flavors he responded “Only strawberry, and maybe honey.”

Then I was asked by the club leader Ms. C to lecture the students on banks. I froze for a moment, I wasn’t prepared to lecture that day. I had not even given my first workshop. Sure I had made notes, but I didn’t have any of them. Ms. C thankfully threw me a lifeline, and said that I would be the bank. Each company had to ask the bank for a loan using their business plan. Bingo I thought! I would work the “bank on it.”

I sat with several students discussing what a bank does, what a loan is, and how banks can help you protect and save your money. Then it was Timmy’s turn to sell his business idea to the bank for a loan. I asked Timmy, “Do you know what a bank does?” He said, “It keeps your money safe.” I told him he was correct, but I then told him banks do other things. He asked what? I asked him if he knew how banks made money? He said he didn’t know. I told him banks give out loans and collect interest on the loans. I told him banks will pay you money in the form of interest for keeping your money in the bank and not spending it. Timmy was so surprised and excited by the thought of having his money make more money. He wanted to know more about banks and how to open bank account; he wanted to know how much money he could make from interest. However, before we could answer all these questions club time ended.

After the club session I chatted with Ms. K. We discussed how we might be able to work personal financial literacy in the business club. I turned to leave, but before I could go, Timmy came up and asked “Mr. Brian?” I said “Yes, Timmy?” Timmy asked, “Will you be here next week?” I said, “I don’t know Timmy. We have to ask Ms. K.” Ms. K said, “I don’t know Timmy, should Mr. Brian come back next week?” Timmy smiled and nodded his head yes. And I told Timmy that I would see him next week.

I of course did return next week to see Timmy and work on the Super Cool Ice Cream Store. But it was amazing to see the spark in Timmy’s eyes as he learned about something he really had not had much exposure to. Timmy was excited to get a bank account and start to save money. He wondered how he could make more money using his business model. And while the FDIC Money Smart program may not have been developed for this kind of use, its information and content may have just sparked a young boy in Ypsilanti to become an entrepreneur.

Brian Rakovitis is an AmeriCorps member at United Way of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.