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Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio snags Gannett Foundation grant for career program

At a time when people seem focused on simply getting through another day, Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio wants students to keep looking to tomorrow.

The Canton-based organization, which works with school districts in 15 Ohio counties, will launch JA Virtual Inspire in March.

The virtual career exploration program aimed at students in seventh to 12th grade is an amped-up virtual job fair that lets kids connect with local companies, colleges and programs.

"We think it's a really great time to do this," said Lori McCleese, president of Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio. "It's such a tough year for kids, and to be able to bring something new and fun and interactive...We want kids to keep thinking about the future."

The organization is bringing the program to life with help from The Gannett Foundation. JA received a $25,000 national grant as well as a $10,000 local grant from the foundation's A Community Thrives program.

The program, which invests in community-building initiatives across the country, is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, as is The Canton Repository.

Virtual Inspire is a massive undertaking that has required new equipment, software and lots of staff time and effort. It's been an "all-hands-on-deck" initiative for JA, McCleese said. "We were thrilled last week when we got the news about the grants," she said.

"It's going to be a tremendous help," she added.

About 11,000 students from around the region are already registered for the program. They anticipate about 14,000 students overall will take part.

Inspire is designed to help students make good decisions about their future, whether they decide to attend college to become an engineer or go to trade school to become a plumber, McCleese said.

"We wanted to provide insight of what those careers would be like in a more in-depth way."

The virtual platform is on-demand. Students can log on and visit different company booths in different halls.

For example, Aultman Health Foundation is sponsoring the health sciences hall, which will have information on careers and education in that field. CISCO is sponsoring the STEM hall, with an emphasis on recruiting more women to the field. Other areas include a manufacturing hall and a college corner.

The goal is to connect some students to further opportunities, such as job shadowing and internships, McCleese said.

Inspire also comes with a curriculum. Students will complete five lessons before the fair and one follow-up lesson. They'll be asked to complete an interest inventory, learn to pitch themselves in an elevator speech and gain insight on networking. And there's a gamification feature, as students will compete for prizes by earning points as they complete lessons and connect with companies.

"We are super excited about it," McCleese said. "The response has been pretty amazing."

JA is working with the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Team NEO, the Stark Economic Development Board, and Strengthening Stark, as well as other area organizations, on the event, she said.

"We are here to work in partnership with other community organizations and schools and community leadership to really improve the lives of people in our communities. That is our goal," McCleese said. "We're not here to just deliver programs. We want to be a partner in improving our communities."

For more information, contact McCleese at 330-433-0063 or

Reach Jessica Holbrook at 330-580-8322 or


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