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Iowa students benefit from conferences

The Wellmark Foundation partnered with Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates (iJAG) by providing $25,000 to assist with two fall leadership conferences ─ in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids ─ as well as, a spring career development conference. This state-based national nonprofit organization is dedicated to supporting young people with project-based learning, trauma informed care and employer engagement.

The Wellmark Foundation is proud to support initiatives — like iJAG — that positively impact Social Determinants of Health (SDOHs). The conditions in places where people are born, live, learn, work and play affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life-risks that don’t have to be a barrier to promising youth. Supporting iJAG is one of the many ways the Foundation is working to remove SDOH barriers in local communities.

The JAG Advantage

iJAG students get to take part in real-world, project-based instructional methods, while teaching specialists work to remove social barriers and show students how to achieve the next step of their career or education after high school graduation.

“We know that individuals with a high school degree or less or from households with an annual income under $50,000 have many more negative health risks and outcomes,” shared Executive Director of The Wellmark Foundation Mary Lawyer about the collaboration.

“By sponsoring a program that creates meaningful connections between students and professionals, customized learning and leadership experiences, resources and employability skills these young people will graduate from high school and move into a productive and rewarding career.”

iJAG Leadership Development Conference

iJAG student attends a fall leadership development conference.

All iJAG students participate in local student-led organizations that work together to build on the skills gained in the classroom. Then at a state level, students are encouraged to attend annual Leadership Development Conferences that provides students the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills and be recognized for their achievements.

More than 600 middle school and high school students from 42 Iowa cities came from all over the state to attend a fall leadership development conference where they heard from speakers and area professionals, including Dr. Tim Gutshall, former Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield senior medical director.

“Through this leadership conference, I was able to share my unique story and inspire students to explore a career in health care, work hard and follow their dreams,” said Dr. Gutshall. “This experience will set these students apart from others as they determine how they can impact the communities in which they live as part of their future careers.”

Successful students, brighter futures

According to iJAG’s annual report students in the program have a 97 percent graduation rate and an 8 percent unemployment rate after high school.

“We help students see that they can be all that they want to be, even when they are told they can’t,” said Laurie Phelan, Iowa iJAG President & CEO. “The program puts young people in front of leaders in their state, community and family, while bringing opportunities like this conference to them. Partnerships like The Wellmark Foundation’s help get this program front and center with these young people and show them that there are companies out there that want to help them be successful.”

Council Bluffs community School district iJAG Teaching Specialist Dani McPherson works with Lincoln High School students to remove barriers to learning and help them excel in future careers or education.

iJAG student attends a fall leadership development conference.

“This program impacts students by helping them make their plan for post-secondary education,” said McPherson. “Our students don’t always know about opportunities that are available to them so when employers like Wellmark or The Wellmark Foundation come in it really is eye opening to them.”

High school senior Wynter Jade Churchill started in iJAG as a seventh grader and is the president of her local chapter this year. “I like helping people, and iJAG is helping me figure out what I want to do after high school,” said Churchill. “Through speakers, coaching and career assessments the program has helped me realize that I’m interested in a career in science. I’m grateful iJAG puts more career options in front of students by helping us find job tours, learning opportunities like this conference, speakers, internships and job shadows we’re interested in.”

First year iJAG student Chris Wilson already feels as though his participation in the program has helped him improve his leadership skills in the classroom, on the football field and made him a better person within the community.

“The program has helped me see the benefits of college and create plans to better my life,” said Wilson. “With this being my first year in iJAG and being a president, I hope to give the future generation of students something to strive for and make our school and community a better place.

Wilson is an Eagle Scout and loves helping in the community. He hopes to play college football after high school and get his physical education and health endorsement and go into administration.

Removing barriers and finding hope

In addition to attending conferences, iJAG students collaborate on projects, hold leadership roles, complete class assignments, and participate in several community engagement activities.

“We can all agree these are challenging times in many ways,” said Phelan. “At iJAG, our focus is on helping students find hope and build healthy, supportive relationships with our students, by engaging them with the opportunities in business, community, and government, and by helping to remove challenges.”

iJAG aspires to help introduce students to all their available post-secondary options, including guidance around college scholarships and loan repayment programs.

“Because of our collaboration with iJAG, students will be exposed to health care careers that they may not have otherwise thought were possible,” said Lawyer. “This will pay dividends not only for each student’s health and quality of life, but also for their ability to give back to the next generation.”

To learn more about the iJAG program or the national nonprofit Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), visit