Getting family discussions started is in the cards with VSAC's Yack Stack

Written by
Stephen Mease

Date
June 3, 2022

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Yack Stack

With many parents working multiple jobs, and many children rushing from school to sports practice – and sometimes, between two separate family homes – right around the dinner hour, it’s no surprise that only about 30 percent of families eat a meal together on a regular basis.

But when families don’t pass the potatoes, they may also miss out on opportunities to pass along the family stories that make up a foundational part of a child’s identity. This intergenerational self, it turns out, is a strong contributor to a young person’s success in school and career, as well as his or her ability to overcome personal challenges. And in a recent survey from a Vermont high school, students who knew their family stories showed higher academic achievement, a higher graduation rate, and a higher college attendance rate.

Supported by the Federal GEAR UP Grant, Parent Engagement Coordinator Cathy Printon, who has worked with VSAC for the last 16 years and as a college administrator for two decades prior, has counseled thousands of families whose busy schedules have not easily allowed for these kinds of conversations. And in her current work, she also faced a challenge. “I needed to find a way to build a relationship with parents who came to me for guidance,” she said. “I can be much more helpful if I know at least a little bit about where they come from, their background, their hopes, and dreams.”

Printon wanted a way to gently encourage families to share their own stories, both with her and with each other, without being too formal. When she thought back to her own time as a busy mom of school-age kids, inspiration struck. “I was always looking for something fun to throw in the car to keep everyone entertained,” Printon recalls.

Hence, the “VSAC Yack Stack” was born.  

A deck of 100 cards held together by a metal ring and featuring a cute pencil drawing of a yak on each card, the Yack Stack is a portable game of conversation-starters. There are icebreakers like: “What do you think is the most annoying word, and why?” as well as meatier, life- and career-oriented questions like: “What did you want to be when you were my age?” and: “What appeals to you in a work environment? Being outside? Inside? Adventure? Routine?”

“Our responses to these questions allow us to get beyond assumptions and dig deeper,” Printon says.  “It’s a matter of being okay with a quick answer, or really getting into some fun and telling stories with our kids.”

Thanks to funding from the federal GEAR UP program, she has sent a Yack Stack home with every seventh-grade GEAR UP student, both last year and this year. That’s close to 400 decks distributed. She also has vetted them in middle and high school classrooms across Vermont and in the homes of friends and colleagues to find out what resonates and what doesn’t.

Talking about money

Having received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the project, Printon decided earlier this year to expand into another area that families don’t talk enough about: money. 

According to the National High School Report on Financial Literacy, Vermont hasn’t earned a good grade for K-12 financial literacy education – though Printon notes that curricula are starting to improve. She attributes that historically low grade partially to the fact that “Vermonters tend to be very private, especially about money. A lot of parents don’t talk about their incomes with their kids, and that can make it hard to have conversations about money, both at home and in the classroom.”

Nevertheless, it’s critical to get students familiar with financial vocabulary and concepts.

“So many people say, ‘Had I learned about financial planning when I was younger, I could have started saving or thinking about my financial future earlier.’ So, this deck is about finding a starting point, and then creating that progression as kids get older,” Printon says. 

The Financial Literacy Yack Stack starts with questions like: “If you found $5 in your pocket, what would you do?” and: “What is the total cost of owning a pet?”

“It starts with things that kids have experience with,” she says.

The questions then move on to more advanced topics like credit, loans, compound interest, and what it means to look for a job with benefits.

One of the tougher questions in the deck, Printon says – based on feedback from families who have used the cards – is this one: “What is your behavior around lending money to family and friends?”

“That’s something that a lot of people haven’t yet answered for their own comfort level, let alone sharing their thoughts with others,” she says. “But it’s an important question.”

“Money is emotional and comes with a very personal set of expectations and experiences,” Printon says. “We want these experiences to be mostly good ones, with an honest conversation about how we use money in our lives, how it drives our decisions, and how we can find pathways to making the best decisions for us as families and as individuals.” It is important to her that the conversation starters aren’t preachy or judgy – but prompt open and honest conversations about money.

Want to start your own conversations?

VSAC has a limited supply of both Yack Stack decks available for interested families. To request a copy of one or both, please send an email to VSAC-GEARUP@vsac.org.


For information on college and career planning and help with financial aid, go to www.vsac.org/FAFSAfirst and check out our online workshops and events. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and online at info@vsac.org.


This story is produced by Vermont Student Assistance Corp., created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 as a public nonprofit agency, to advocate for Vermont students and their families to ensure that they achieve their education goals. Our vision is to create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them. We begin by helping families save for education with Vermont’s state-sponsored 529 savings program. To help Vermonters plan and pay for college or career training, our counselors work with students in nearly every Vermont middle school and high school, and again as adults. Our grant and scholarship programs attract national recognition, and our loan programs and loan forgiveness programs are saving Vermont families thousands of dollars in interest.