Melanie A. Connatser, a longtime Sweetwater resident who has spent the last decade working as a membership services and communications coordinator for the Knoxville Bar Association, is entering her third month as the local JA president.
She succeeds Tracie McCartney who left the post in late 2013 in order to care for her newborn.
A 1999 graduate of Sequoyah High School in Monroe County, Connatser went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business and organization management from Maryville College in 2003, and a master’s degree in religious education from Liberty University in 2013.
In her Bar Association role, Connatser was involved in an array of initiatives including event planning, membership recruitment and marketing of programs and activities.
“Melanie is bringing to Junior Achievement a strong background in nonprofit work, especially having worked in this realm for the past 10 years,” said Rick Platz, longtime JA board chairman. “But more importantly, she has an enthusiasm and high level of expectation for our organization.”
He added, “With her leadership, JA of the Ocoee Region will continue to grow and enhance the kind of programs that make a difference in the lives of our young people.”
Married for 11 years to husband Adam, Connatser said the couple will continue to reside in Sweetwater, her longtime home since age 10.
Although she faces a 45-minute commute to JA’s Cleveland-based office, that’s actually less than her old travel time of an hour to get to the Bar Association offices in downtown Knoxville. Plus, Monroe County is one of the five counties within the local JA region.
The Ocoee affiliate serves public school systems in Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Polk and Monroe counties. Since its original charter in 1965 as Junior Achievement of Bradley and McMinn Counties, the local organization has concentrated most of its efforts in Bradley and McMinn. One of Connatser’s goals will be to strengthen JA’s outreach into the other three counties.
She’ll also keep a finger on the pulse of Bradley County because she’s no stranger to Cleveland.
“While I reside in Sweetwater, I have family and friends in Cleveland,” Connatser explained from her Adkisson Drive office that is being made available by Cleveland State Community College. “As I take on my new role as president at JA, I look forward to building strong relationships with the communities of our five-county region.”
She added, “I am excited to be involved in an organization that places an emphasis on preparing our community’s young people for the real world. They are our future business leaders.”
In her first couple months on the job, Connatser has wasted no time in her orientation. She has already held multiple sessions with JA’s volunteer board and the new president is also getting into the communities to satisfy several needs.
One, she is working to meet — and to personally thank — existing JA supporters and financial donors, and to involve them in JA’s future plans for fundraising and programming.
Two, she is branching out into new arenas; that is, companies, corporations and individuals who have not served previously as JA donors, financially or through volunteerism. Her goal is to reacquaint them with the organization’s goals while also using the opportunity to recruit new volunteers.
Three, she is expanding JA’s outreach to the entire five-county region. Previously, JA’s efforts in Meigs, Monroe and Polk counties had been limited. She wants to increase JA’s presence in those areas while sustaining — and perhaps increasing — the nonprofit’s influence in Bradley and McMinn.
Four, she is telling the story of Junior Achievement and expanding the nonprofit’s public awareness campaign. Her belief is the more who know about JA, the better the organization’s message will be understood.
Five, she is giving JA fundraising in the region a mild facelift. One of the group’s past fundraisers — the Monster Ball at Halloween — is being discontinued. It is being replaced with a 5K run and one-mile Fun Run, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 18. JA’s other two key fundraisers — the existing annual campaign now in full swing and the spring-season bowl-a-thon — are being continued.
Like her predecessors, Connatser understands fundraising is JA’s biggest task in order to sustain, and to expand, its classroom programming.
“A major challenge is obtaining the funding necessary for JA programs, but I think — along with building awareness in the community and building relationships — JA will be successful,” she stressed.
Connatser is excited about the current campaign that began just a few weeks ago.
“JA’s ability to reach so many youth depends on the generosity of individuals who invest their time as classroom volunteers as well as financial resources as funders,” she said. “Our annual campaign will help inspire and prepare young people in the upcoming school year.”
Donations can be made online at www.juniorachievement.org/web/jaocoee or by calling the JA offices at 423-614-8775.
Last year, the local JA affiliate reached 4,500 students in 177 classrooms. Those numbers will grow if she is successful in giving the nonprofit a better presence in Monroe, Meigs and Polk, as well as expanding volunteer and donor numbers in McMinn, and also in the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems.
“Junior Achievement of the Ocoee Region places a primary emphasis on preparing young people in financial literacy, entrepreneurship and work readiness,” Connatser said. “In order to train students in these primary areas, JA’s primary goals include expanding and managing the demand for JA programs and securing sufficient resources — both in volunteers and funding.”
She pointed to JA’s role — locally, nationally and internationally.
“JA makes our communities stronger by bridging the gap of what students are learning in school and how it can be applied in the real world,” Connatser cited. “The hands-on learning allows students to become better prepared for their futures. JA reinforces the value of an education.”
As part of its doctrine, JA doesn’t try to replace the role of conventional classroom teaching. Instead, the nonprofit’s volunteers — who are lending their levels of expertise in the classroom setting — are supplementing ongoing public education efforts.
“No matter where you come from, there is definitely a great need by students,” she offered.
As a student, Connatser did not have access to JA programming. Today, she understands how it could have benefited her formal education.
“I’ve heard so many good things from people about JA,” she noted. “It definitely has a great history. It’s one reason I’m here.”
Connatser praised the civic mindset of CSCC administrators who made available the current JA offices which formerly served as the community college’s Security Building. JA moved into the facility in 2013, and continues to explore new opportunities and unique synergies with the community college.
“Cleveland State is a major sponsor in all of our events and they supply our office space for which I’m very grateful,” the new president stressed.
She pointed to the organization’s parallel missions, one of which is workforce readiness.
“Cleveland State has really gotten big in that,” Connatser said. “And that’s what JA is all about. Our missions do align in that sense. We are both focused on getting students prepared for their careers.”
Another natural advantage of the campus logistics is JA can now pull from a pool of CSCC volunteers and educational facilities.
Connatser agreed with past assessments by Platz and CSCC administrators — that JA’s new location is creating opportunities for both. Collectively, the partnership has been called a “win-win” for each.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to know the communities more and making sure our students do receive that hands-on training,” she said.
Connatser praised Platz, the unpaid board members and JA’s fleet of volunteers. She credited all with welcoming her into the JA fold.
“We’re not yet in every school system,” she cited. “But that’s one of my goals ... to get JA into every school system in our region.”