First in an occasional series of articles on the Untied Way of North Central Mass. Youth Venture program.
By Peter Jasinski
LEOMINSTER -- Since it began in 2002, the United Way of North Central Massachusetts' Youth Venture program has been an ever-expanding entity.
What started with 35 students in three schools has grown into a community-service network with thousands of active members in five states. Right now the focus is expanding to see what interest there might be on a global scale.
"This often is the very first time where a young person is ever asked what they think about something, and what they think they can do about it," said Phil Grzewinski, United Way of North Central Massachusetts' president and founder of ITS Youth Venture program.
The idea of having students come up with community-service projects for which they are responsible for planning and coordinating is not unique to the United Way.
Originally, the idea came from the social entrepreneur network Ashoka, which had previously offered to finance community-service initiatives started by independent parties.
According to Grzewinski, Ashoka was struggling to apply the same program at the middle- and high-school levels when he first began corresponding with the group.
"The light bulb that went off in my head was that I could call any superintendent in this region and know they'd return my call because I'm local," he said.
Starting with Leominster public schools and what was then the Ayer school district, United Way's Youth Venture program began in 2002 with eight separate ventures. More students became interested each following school year, further expanding the program.
"The program grew beyond the capacity the United Way could manage, so it partnered with Mount Wachusett Community College in 2005. Ever since then, the college has been running the program, which is supported financially by the United Way," said Lauren Mountain, who serves as the college's Youth Venture program associate director.
In recent years, United Way and Mount Wachusett have also partnered with Tyco SimplexGrinnell to push the Youth Venture program beyond the North Central Massachusetts.
Since making the Youth Venture program one of its signature philanthropy initiatives, Westminster-based Tyco SimplexGrinell has held annual grant competitions at which employees raise money that goes toward establishing new Youth Venture programs at other United Way chapters across the country.
In 2015, enough funds were generated to create programs at United Ways in New Bedford and in Pike's Peak, Colo. The year before, programs were started in San Jose, Calif., Long Island, N.Y., and Medina County, Ohio.
The program is also looking to expand to lower K-5 grade levels as well. Starting Monday, elementary schools in the North Central region will start developing schoolwide venture projects based on the theme of kindness.
"It's about teaching students from a young age about what it means to be kind, how to be kind to others, and what to do when people are kind to you," said Mountain.
That focus also complements Mount Wachusett Community College's push for civic responsibility among its student body and faculty.
In just North Central Massachusetts alone, the United Way awarded $20,435 of funds toward ventures in the 2014-15 school year, compared with the roughly $3,000 awarded in the program's first year.
While ventures that continue on for more than a year are able to get as much as $1,000 in seed funding, ventures that last for only one school year get a maximum of $500.
With this funding, students have been able to create a mental-health curriculum for the state's middle and high schools, host holiday parties for Alzheimer's patients and raise money for a variety of different causes.
"To me, the most important aspect of this is it lets students choose to do something they're passionate about. They can pick something in their community and then actually see change," said Amanda Kelly, who serves as a Youth Venture champion for Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School.
Kelly oversees the ventures established by Monty Tech students, though she admits nearly everything is dictated by the students themselves.
"I like to stay a little more in the background, and let them make their own decisions," she said.
Grzewinski said participation in the program has a number of positive influences on students, including a reduction in suspensions and detentions the students receive while taking part in a venture.
Students involved with a Youth Venture also tend to see their grade point averages rise while also developing a greater interest in continuing education after high school graduation.
Grzewinski said there are also benefits on a more unseen, immeasurable level.
"Internally for the young person, this is a transformative event," he said. "By virtue of going through the program they develop what I think is the one key ingredient for civil society and that's empathy."
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