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Dominiqua Watts, left, and Imari Davis stand outside of the Job Foundation office on a recent afternoon. Both students will be graduating from East High School Friday and have been part of the Job Foundation financial stewardship program since elementary school.

WATERLOO — A program teaching students financial stewardship has paid off for a group of high school seniors, who are graduating with thousands of dollars in savings.

East High School students Dominiqua Watts, Imari Davis and Love’ Saffold plus West High student Yajaira Burt began participating in the Job Foundation program when they were in third grade.

Financial lessons and work with a mentor have taught the girls habits in spending, saving and charitable giving. They have completed more than 120 financial stewardship and leadership lessons. And, as the students went through the program, the foundation paid money into accounts for them.

Those earnings have added up: $3,800 for Watts, $3,500 for Burt, $3,000 for Saffold and $2,700 for Davis.

Payments to the girls were determined “through our grades and our attendance” as well as behavior, said Davis. “So, basically, getting paid to go to school.”

“If you had D’s or F’s, you did not receive your earnings,” noted Watts. “It was like motivation to do good.”

And their earnings have been boosted even more through a generous gift. “At our affirmation event, an anonymous donor gave $1,000 to each,” said Darvel Givens, a communications specialist for the foundation.

“This is the first set (of students) that started in elementary school and graduated,” he added. The seniors’ last day of school was Thursday. The three East students graduate tonight and Burt graduates Tuesday.

Their graduations are a milestone for the nearly 13-year-old foundation, which began the financial stewardship mentoring program in 2007 but initially worked only with older students. Participants were first required to start the program between third and fifth grades when the girls joined it during the 2009-10 school year.

To date, the program has worked with 141 young people from low-income families in specific Waterloo Community Schools’ attendance areas. “We currently serve 113 students,” said Givens. About 98 percent of past participants have stuck with it through graduation.

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Watts and Davis, who both enrolled in the program while students at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, spoke to The Courier about their experience.

They learned practical skills like balancing a checkbook and how to use credit or finance a car purchase. They were taught to distinguish between wants and needs while looking at how to use their money. But the girls also talked about relationships built over the years — particularly with Susan Backes, who mentored and tutored them, and Jennifer Brost, who established the foundation.

Watts noted the example of the organization’s staff and volunteers, who give up their time to work with students. “The impact on me, it taught me not to be selfish,” she said.

Over the years, she has learned that lesson as it relates not just to giving her time but giving her money. Students can spend 40 percent of what they earn. But not all of it can benefit themselves; they must also give some money to charitable causes.

That was a problem for Watts early on in the program, particularly when she was a sixth-grader. “I was very frustrated that I had to give to a charity,” she said. Eventually, Watts accepted the idea and began to understand how her giving is “making a difference” after a family member benefited from a charity she gave to.

Students must save a minimum of 60 percent of their earnings until completing the program. Upon graduation, the funds can be used for expenses like getting a first car and obtaining a secure loan to establish credit history. Davis said she struggled with the idea of saving all that money at first.

However, “after all we saved since we were in elementary school,” said Davis, she sees the benefit. “I’m going to try and get a car now with savings and save the rest. That’s all I really plan to do with it.”

“My plan is to put my money in stocks and also to buy a computer for college,” said Watts, noting stock market investments were among the financial lesson topics. “And then the rest is going to get saved.”

Next fall, Davis will attend Hawkeye Community College with plans to transfer to a university after two years. Watts will attend Iowa State University, where she plans to major in elementary education.

To learn more about the Job Foundation, including opportunities to mentor students, go online to thejobfoundation.org. Contact the organization by email at info@thejobfoundation.org, by phone at (319) 823-1030 or in person at 4600 University Ave., Suite 1, Cedar Falls.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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