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Sonoma County students learn to conquer financial challenges in a safe environment

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Ammaleah Escobar is in eighth grade at Hilliard Comstock Middle School in Santa Rosa, but already she is married making $110,000 a year with over $50,000 in retirement savings and working off almost $30,000 in credit card debt.

At least, that’s according to the fictional financial profile given to her Thursday as part of Junior Achievement of Northern California’s JA Finance Park, a multiday workshop aimed at developing financial literacy in young people. Underwritten by Santa Rosa-based Luther Burbank Corporation Foundation, the Santa Rosa event was intended to help students learn to balance a budget, with the help of bank employees.

JANC is one of over 100 local organizations nationally dedicated to helping young people towards economic and academic success.

It is the first year for JA Finance Park in Santa Rosa. Leading up to the event were five weeks of financial education and instruction using curriculum created by the nonprofit Junior Achievement organization.

The workshop was held over two days, when students met with bankers in a cavernous building at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, getting acquainted with their financial profiles, going from kiosk to kiosk learning about essentials like car and home payments with Luther Burbank employees, and finally, sitting down to create a budget and attempt to brave any hypothetical financial calamities that might come their way.

“Luther Burbank has been a strong supporter of JA for the last 20 years,” said Vic Trione, chairman of the board, during the event.

Trione said 80 bank employees would work with approximately 120 to 130 students a day from local schools, helping them to understand basic and some more advanced financial principles.

The bank estimated it will work with more than 1,200 students over nine days from the end of February through the beginning of March.

“This was something that really grabbed me because this is an area of financial literacy that is not part of the normal curriculum and I think it’s vital,” Trione said of the financial park workshop.

“Financial literacy is an important part of preparing students for their futures and empowering them as they mature into young adults,” said Simone Lagomarsino, CEO of Luther Burbank and one of volunteer coaches for students, in a press release about the event.

Beyond the hard skills the students walk away with, Trione also noted that it was an opportunity “to engage in interactive learnings where you can see the results immediately of your choices, the consequences for choices.”

Those choices came into sharper focus for Escobar, the eighth-grader, through the workshop. Although her mother works at Redwood Credit Union, also based in Santa Rosa, and she was familiar with some financial principles, her profile helped her more concretely grasp some concepts, she said.

“What I’m learning that I didn’t know before is how much you might get paid at a job,” Escobar said, adding the high costs of a quality home or car were also news.

Seventh-grader Monyrath Neang was given the profile of a single parent making $54,000 annually with a 6-year-old to care for and student loan debt. The workshop drove home concepts like loans and the difference between credit and debit cards.

“$11,000 in loans is a lot,” she said, referring to her hypothetical student borrowing.

The classroom experience and the workshop allowed the students to have an “opportunity to see what life might be like in the future,” said Lori Florence of Junior Achievement and writer of the curriculum.

After lunch at the workshop, the students sat down and made a budget based on their financial profile and the options for housings, transportation, clothing and other essential they selected at the kiosks.

“It’s an opportunity for them to do all that and fail in a really nice comfortable environment,” Florence said. “Some of them will succeed in balancing their budget, and some of them won’t. And so there will be an opportunity for them to talk one on one with those volunteers about where they went wrong and what they can do better.”

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