By: Allison Stevens | September 22, 2023
One morning 2 years ago, Maria L.’s ears perked when a message came over her high school’s loudspeakers: Navy Federal Credit Union was offering teens in the Winchester, Va. area the opportunity to hone financial and leadership skills through a sustained mentorship program.
A lover of numbers and a natural leader, Maria jumped at the opportunity.
At the start of her junior year at Sherando High School, she enrolled in the credit union’s volunteer-led Classroom-to-Office program, which operates at 3 high schools in the relatively remote and rural valley of the Shenandoah mountains.
During the fall, Navy Federal staff visited her class to teach the ins and outs of everything from macroeconomics to personal finance. But it wasn’t until winter when the learning opportunity grew into something more meaningful: a “passion project” to support her community and to honor her cousin, who had recently died of cancer.
With support from her mentor, Chip S., a Veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Collections Manager at Navy Federal, Maria decided to hold a charity walk (not a run! she joked) to benefit Special Love, a Winchester nonprofit that supports kids with cancer. She also recruited her economics teacher and the school’s track coach and librarian to her cause. Together, they secured needed approvals, planned the event and promoted it at school, at Navy Federal and in the community.
Getting to the finish line was an emotional challenge, too. “I was a mess,” Maria said as tears welled up. But it was worth it: More than 100 people turned out for the April 8 event, generating more than $1,200 in donations for Special Love. “I was shaking when I was counting the money,” she said.
The event also raised awareness around a cause that is sometimes overshadowed by other, higher-profile issues affecting kids and families. The project has personally touched Chip, whose own granddaughter is participating in the Classroom-to-Office program at Sherando—and who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer herself.
“The journey begins but we know where our faith is,” he said. In the meantime, “the program will benefit not only our community but wherever the students find themselves in the future.”
Effort Worth the Reward
Maria was one of two dozen students—and a similar number of Navy Federal employees—who participated in the mentor program last year. Employees volunteered around 25 hours of their time to the program, undergoing background checks and training, holding weekly mentoring sessions and attending student field trips and end-of-year celebrations.
Students, meanwhile, took on challenging educational concepts in economics and finance, as well as a major project, such as sending care packages to older Veterans, donating business attire to workers in need and collecting baseball and softball equipment.
The effort is “definitely” worth the reward, said Braxton, a senior at Winchester’s Millbrook High School who also participated last year. For his project, Braxton built a website focused on modern digital marketing. He was inspired by a desire to promote his work in digital art and video game design—a career he hopes to pursue after he graduates from college. Braxton’s mentor, Andre C., a computer technician at Navy Federal, called the project successful, as did Braxton’s mom, Shontya. “When you teach a student in a capacity that they actually want to learn, you’re going to get great results,” she said.
Programs See Rapid Growth
The program is scaling rapidly. This year, 35 students are participating at 4 schools, a 400+ percent increase over the program’s inaugural year, when 8 participated from 1 high school. And, it’s just one of a handful of “volunteer-powered” initiatives in Navy Federal’s larger “School Partnerships” program, which also supports schools in and around the credit union’s 2 other main campuses in Vienna, Va. and Pensacola, Fla.
Another Winchester-area program—the Community Reads program—supports younger kids. Under the program, elementary students receive a book, such as Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, and write about it to a Navy Federal volunteer, who then responds in writing. At the end of the program, kids, teachers and volunteers celebrate with a movie and treats.
Last year, more than 800 students across 13 schools in Frederick County participated, including just about every third-grader in town, notes Kelly B., an elementary teacher who participated in the program and watched the kids build confidence as they read their own books and corresponded with Navy Federal volunteers.
“We’re so thankful to Navy Federal for partnering with the county schools these last few years,” said Kelly and Jennifer R., another third-grade teacher in the county. “The books Navy Federal has purchased for our students, not to mention the time and energy Navy Federal volunteers give to the kids, are building skills and sparking joy in our classrooms.”
Families also benefit, Jennifer added. “It’s nice to give families that opportunity to read at home. Some kids don’t get a lot of attention. This is another way to show them there are people that really care.”
Navy Federal employees support schools in other ways, too. Some lead no-cost educational presentations on subjects like career readiness, financial literacy and life and social skills. Others support drives for clothing, school supplies and holiday gifts. Still others donate their time at various school and community events, such as science fairs, carnivals and field days to ease the workload of school staff and parent volunteers.
Making a Difference
Navy Federal campuses in Vienna and Pensacola, meanwhile, support additional partnerships with area schools, such as Big Brother/Big Sister programs. All told, more than 35 employees lead more than a dozen programs in 5 school districts involving thousands of Navy Federal volunteers, benefitting students, teachers and families across communities.
“Throughout the year, Navy Federal employees donate volunteer hours to our local school communities by providing reading, writing, financial literacy, career readiness, mentorship and general volunteer support for various school activities,” said Anita M., a business operations analyst at Navy Federal who volunteers her time to help manage the Winchester School Partnerships program. “Our volunteers are making a difference!”
In addition to the School Partnerships program, Navy Federal empowers its employees to champion their communities by providing eight hours of paid volunteer leave annually through its Operation: Give Back program. In 2022, employees served nearly 37,000 hours of paid volunteer leave.
The ultimate impact is hard to quantify; for some, it might even be life-changing. Maria, for example, is participating in an externship at Navy Federal this year—followed by a guaranteed job interview—and also thinking about studying finance at community college. “I learned from this program that sometimes things don’t go exactly how you plan them,” she says, “but it’s what you learn in the end that counts.”
Author Bio: Allison Stevens is a writer, editor and communications professional who specializes in strategic storytelling. A member of Navy Federal’s Corporate Communications team, Allison tells and shares stories about members who achieve their goals with the help of Navy Federal’s products and services and supports the team’s external communications and media relations initiatives. A former reporter, she holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in journalism.
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