Homelessness. Poverty. Hunger. Illness. Mental health. The environment. Finding solutions to these and other social issues are confounding to even the most experienced adults.
Fortunately, area teens and adolescents are stepping up to become part of the solution, as demonstrated in the first United Way Youth Venture community expo. The event, held March 9 at the Great Wolf Lodge, showcased the wide-ranging, inspiring social ventures of North Central Massachusetts youth.
Business and community leaders turned out to see how teams of young social entrepreneurs are leveraging their passion and skills to generate unique solutions to school and community challenges, including homelessness, autism awareness, support for foster children, environmental conservation, animal welfare and many others.
Over the past decade, the program has grown from 150 students to 6,500 student participants this year and is the largest UWYV program in the world.
UWYV was established in 2002 when the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, Mount Wachusett Community College and Ashoka’s Youth Venture partnered to help area schools integrate youth-based social ventures into their curriculum, afterschool activities and special events. More than a dozen schools in the region participate, with many others expressing interest in starting a program.
“You are really making a difference. You are inspiring people,” UWYV Assistant Director Lauren Mountain announced to the gathering of enthusiastic participants, who were joined by family and friends.
Lea Ann Scales, MWCC vice president of external affairs, communications and K-12 partnerships commended the young social entrepreneurs for their dedication, passion for addressing some of society’s most pressing problems, and rising leadership roles in the community.
“The work of these venture teams shows me that we have nothing to be worried about when we talk about our future.”
The winner of the first UWYV Bob Chauvin Leadership Award, Rafaela Lopes, 18, of Leominster, was presented with a $1,500 scholarship. The award is named in honor of Chauvin, the recently retired president and CEO of SimplexGrinnell, for his support of UWYV locally and nationally.
A dual enrollment student in MWCC’s Gateway to College program, Lopes created the social venture Go Make a Difference when she was 15. Over the past three years, she has led her team in fulfilling its mission to help the community locally by providing regular birthday celebrations for homeless children, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity of North Central Massachusetts, and most recently, a service trip in February to an impoverished village in Haiti.
Three $1,000 UWYV scholarships were presented to Leominster High School students Maggie Mbengue (The Children’s Education Fund); Morgan Tait (Go Make a Difference); and Hannah Dike (Friends of Rachel’s Challenge).
“The things I do to help are not difficult – anyone can brighten a day or lighten a stressful load,” said Lopes. She was inspired to make a difference in the lives of others by creating a youth-run social venture that would help young people experiencing or close to homelessness, as she had experienced as a child in Brazil before moving to Massachusetts seven years ago.
“I look for ways wherever possible to help others, but often feel frustrated because so much help is needed in the world, and I want to do more.”