Honoring Women Who Are Leading the Way in Central Florida
Kathy Panter | Spirit of Mentorship Award Recipient
“This is your time, there will never be a more opportunistic moment in history for you as a woman in the United States.” It was an incredibly visionary statement made by their father to Kathy Panter and her sister when they were growing up in the 60s and 70s. And it foretold the direction of both their lives and Panter’s vocation. Today she stills draws inspiration from that moment and offers a similar voice of encouragement and faith for the potential of young people as the President of Junior Achievement of Central Florida, (JA).
“Just like my father, I tell the students we work with, ‘I can’t give you the world, but I can give you a window into the world, so you’ll know what to seek, what to look for and how to recognize it when you find it.’ We help them dream big dreams,” she shared with obvious passion, one of the reasons for the continued success of JA.
Nationwide, JA’s volunteer-delivered, kindergarten-12 programs foster work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills, and use experiential learning to inspire students to reach their potential. With the help of more than 237,000 volunteers around the country, JA program participants develop the skills they need to experience the realities and opportunities of work and entrepreneurship in the 21st-century global marketplace.
In Central Florida, JA has a 50-year history that has inspired more than 1 million young people. They are lessons Panter, a JA alum, learned early. “When I was 14 I wanted a job, but no one will hire a 14-year-old. But we had a family friend that had a store, so my father went and asked him to give me a job, because he didn’t want to squelch my drive.” Her father promised to pay the weekly wages, but when he went to cover her earnings in the second week, her dad’s friend refused to take it, saying, “We need her here.” It was the beginning of Panter’s professional career and her drive to make sure young people understand the potential of the free enterprise system to focus their aspirations and shape their character.
Setting Young People Up To Succeed
“We have so many in this generation that know only dependency,” Panter shared. “The idea that you can determine your future, that your past experience doesn’t have to be your future experience, is foreign to so many. We have a student whose mother is on the night time custodial staff at the airport. So he gets his brother up and ready for school, before he goes. He came through our JA Academy at Oak Ridge High and earned a $218,000 scholarship to Wake Forest University and a Google internship. I asked him what he wanted to do and he said, ‘I’m going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg; I don’t know how or where, but that’s what I’m going to be,’” she said, beaming.
The JA Academy is the only program of its kind in the country and serves as a magnet school for leadership and entrepreneurship. Located on the campus of Oak Ridge High, just outside of Edgewood, the 2012 inaugural class had 99 students graduate the program; today, 83 are attending college and together have received over $4 million in scholarships to higher learning institutions such as the University of Florida, University of Kentucky, University of Central Florida, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Stetson and more. Of the top 20 students in Oak Ridge High’s graduating class, 18 were from the academy, including class valedictorian. All total, 468 students in grades 9 – 12 participate in the program.
The academy was conceived at a board retreat in 2004 and answered the question, “How could JA have the greatest impact on students?” Traditional programs exposed students in after school experiences, but the board wanted something more. Dick Nunis, former Chair of Walt Disney Attractions, insisted on in-school programs, which now serve 47,000 students in Central Florida. When they looked at that question in 2004, they were looking at the lasting impact and came up with the idea of an academy. They began fundraising, even made it as far as design outlines for the concept, provided by Disney Imagineers, but the going was slow. In 2008, the plan was tabled but in 2012, Orange County Public Schools called to inquire whether the dream was still incubating.
At the time, the state Board of Education had rated Oak Ridge an “F” school, its student body was dropping and the administration realized that change was desperately needed. So, JA and Orange County Public Schools started what has become one of the most successful collaborations in the school system’s history. “We took a huge financial risk as a board, opened that first August as promised, in 2012. We wove entrepreneurship into all the curriculum; it is a school within a school. It is a place where dreams are born,” said Panter.
Reflecting, she continued, “I lived in the Middle East during my high school years, therefore I know firsthand what a land of freedom and opportunity this nation is. I want all our young people to understand, appreciate and be able to take advantage of that.”