January 5, 1999 | By: Haven Miller

As adults, each of us works hard to make our monthly income cover the necessities and still have a little left over at the end of the month. Wouldn't it have been great if we could have had a "trial run" at adult spending decisions while we were still young and able to choose our future career?

That's the idea behind "Reality Store," a program supported by Kentucky 4-H that allows middle and high school students to get a taste of adult life.

"Reality Store helps youth realize that their career choice, the education required for a career, and potential lifestyle are related," said Martha Welch, Extension associate for 4-H youth development in the UK College of Agriculture. "It's a way for students to see firsthand how expenses for necessities as well as luxuries must be balanced with the reality of monthly income."

Here's how Reality Store works: School officials and the local 4-H agent invite community business representatives to set up tables, or "stores," at the school. The stores provide various services such as banking, groceries, insurance, transportation, and utilities. Students are offered career choices based on their educational aspirations. With their monthly "paychecks" in-hand, students are required to visit each store to purchase goods and services. Those who spend wisely may have money left over at the end of the month; students who make lower salaries or make expensive purchases barely break even, or may even go bankrupt. For those who lose everything, there's an "S.O.S." station where advice and options are offered.

It's all just make-believe, but it carries a serious message.

"A lot of the teens have big ideas about buying a large house or a big car, but they really can't afford it," said Mary Beth VanMeter, a parent helping out with a recent Reality Store at Lexington's Henry Clay high school. "They can hear about making these choices from adults, but seeing it on paper themselves makes a big impact," said VanMeter.

"We make it as real as possible," said Fayette County 4-H agent Christy Nuetzman. "We pretend that every student is 25 years old, and then they draw to determine how many imaginary children they have. Child care is one of their big expenses. They also must visit the 'chance' store during the session -- that's where life deals them something unexpected. It could be good, like winning free groceries, or bad such as windstorm damage to their house."

Students may choose from a long career list that includes electrical engineer, government administrator, construction worker, aircraft mechanic, agricultural scientist, farm machine operator, physicist, conservation officer, cook, and custodian.

"The idea is not to tell them which careers are best," said Martha Welch, "but to teach youth that they need to plan ahead. A minimum wage job may sound like a lot of money to someone who is 16, but we want them to ask themselves if minimum wage will meet their needs when they're 30."

Kara Fresh, a junior at Henry Clay, chose child psychologist as her career because she's interested in psychology and also in working with children. She said it was surprising how much certain services cost.

"You sort of take it for granted when you're living with your parents how much they really spend on you," said Fresh. "For example, I didn't realize how much telephone and cable television cost. My biggest expense was paying for my house."

"I had a couple of students who were unhappy with their incomes," said Charlotte Duncan-Thurston, family science teacher at Henry Clay, "but I told them they still have the opportunity to determine their real-life career because they're only in the ninth grade."

Reality Store has operated in Kentucky for about two years, and its popularity is growing. It's one of several programs supported by Kentucky 4-H and UK Cooperative Extension that helps youngsters learn necessary skills for employment - a top priority under guidelines recommended by the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Labor Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS.

"Kentucky 4-H helps youth prepare for life," said Martha Welch. "Reality Store is helping them do this. It's a wake-up call at a time when they can do something about it."

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Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller
(606)257-3784

Source: Martha Welch
(606) 257-5961