Nashoba Publishing/Dina Samfield

Photo caption 1:

Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School eighth-graders Michael Meaden and Andrew Paré celebrate the gift of a new Dell XPS 8500 computer from oneZero Financial Systems Co-founder Jesse Johnson and President Matthew Kathman. Johnson and Kathman surprised the two students with their donation in the school library last week. Meaden and Paré co-founded and run the Youth Venture 3D Game Design club at their school.

Photo 3:

Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School eighth-graders Michael Meaden and Andrew Paré are overwhelmed as they open the new Dell XPS 8500 computer donated for their 3D Game Design Youth Venture by oneZero Financial Systems. Matthew Lyon, who served on the YV community panel alongside oneZero Co-founder Jesse Johnson, looks on.

By Dina Samfield


SHIRLEY -- It is not often that you hear about middle school students being at a loss for words, but when eighth-graders Michael Meaden and Andrew Paré were surprised with a new computer for their 3-D gaming project last week, they were practically speechless.

The pair are social entrepreneurs who started the United Way Youth Venture "3-D Game Design" at Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School this year.

Last week, Paré and Meaden were presented with a new Dell XPS 8500 computer for their venture.


Matthew Kathman, president and chief strategy officer of oneZero Financial Systems LLC, and oneZero Co-founder Jesse Johnson, one of the UWYV panelists for 3-D design, made and delivered the donation.

The boys were caught completely by surprise, as their UWYV ally Ayer-Shirley Technology Specialist Colleen Geddis had asked the two to stay after school, ostensibly to do some work.

When she walked them into the school library, Kathman and Johnson, as well as UWYV community panelists Ann Kahn and Matthew Lyon, school guidance counselor Krystal Velazquez-Bergeron, and UWYV volunteer Nicole Mello were all waiting with huge grins on their faces.

As the boys opened the box containing their new computer, which is identical to the one they had purchased with the $1,000 in seed money they used to start their venture, they could barely utter a "thank you."

"We are so lucky we have a second computer," Meaden finally said.

"We're grateful. This is really unbelievable," added Paré.

Johnson is a highly regarded graphics developer who began his own software-development career in the gaming industry.

"He was so impressed with Andrew's and Michael's presentation that he wanted to ensure they had as much power behind them as possible; hence, another new computer," said Ayer-Shirley Library Media Specialist and YV Champion Kathryn Lyon.

"I was impressed with their level of maturity, commitment, the detail of their planning and their prospects for success," said Lyon's husband, Matthew, who stood by beaming as the boys unwrapped their surprise. "I also think they bring different strengths to this project that it will need; they are a good complement."

An Ayer-Shirley tradition

UWYV is a three-way partnership between the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, the Center for Democracy and Humanity at Mount Wachusett Community College, and Ashoka's Youth Venture.

UWYV, which has partnered with 15 local middle and high schools and other organizations in the area since its inception in 2002, inspires and invests in teams of young people to create and launch their own sustainable, community-benefiting ventures.

Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School leads North Central Massachusetts in terms of its UWYV involvement. The school currently runs 25 UWYV groups with nearly 250 students, thanks to Kathryn Lyon, UWYV's 2009 Champion of the Year.

The school's Youth Ventures range from an after-school Lego club, to collecting coats for Anton's Cleaners' Coats for Kids program, to coordinating food drives and collecting money and donations for animal shelters. 

Each UWYV team must go through an application process before going before a panel of local business professionals to get approval for its project.

The team must also develop a meeting schedule for the group. Lyon hosts numerous open meetings throughout the week to give students a chance to work on their projects.

A 3-D idea

Each UWYV group sets its own goals and decides how much money its project will need to be sustainable. Meaden and Paré had decided early on that they needed a computer capable of handling 3-D graphics.

Their idea, they said, was inspired by their love for working with computers.

In their UWYV action plan, the pair stated that their venture would help the community by providing a new opportunity for kids who like video games.

"Having an opportunity to work with other people who enjoy the same things as we do is a great experience," they said.

Their major goal was to provide a new after-school activity that would "be a team-building activity that teaches that collaboration, effort and teamwork can produce positive results."

"We can help other gamers better understand computers by teaching about graphic design, video and audio editing, and coding," they stated. "This will help kids if they want to go into a field that involves computers."

Paré, of Shirley, pegged himself as the director and leader of the club who is available to answer questions. Meaden, who lives in Ayer, described himself as the head designer and teacher of designing software.

Their goals for the year were to buy a computer, recruit other members, make a video game by the end of the first two semesters, and, eventually, hold a tournament to raise money for local charities. They also plan to raise $90 by the end of the year in an effort to make the venture sustainable, even after they move on to high school.

It's a mod, mod world

The two Dell XPS 8500 computers the game design students use are customizable multimedia desktops capable of handling high performance graphics.

The club, which meets after school and during the students' enrichment period, is working on modifying personal computer games for their fellow students to enjoy. These modifications, known as mods, require users to have the original release of a game. The mods may include new characters, models, textures, levels, music, storylines, or game modes.

Mods also can be used to create new games, add new content to underlying games, or fix bugs in games. One of the games the club is working on modifying is Minecraft.

"Andrew and Michael, along with 3-D Game Design, are an example of the United Way Youth Venture process at its best," said Lyon. "Andrew spent three years putting together a venture. He worked hard to examine what he was passionate about and how he wanted to impact his community.

"Andrew and Michael then brought the project to panel and their community. In addition to having the support of school staff and students and UWYV, they have enlarged the community behind their venture and received support from oneZero," she said.

Making a difference

What is truly amazing about the UWYV program, Lyon says in an UWYV video, is that "you take one person, you show them how to be a change-maker, you give them the opportunity, and they go about and they teach others ... how to make a difference."

What she likes best, she says, is the way that "solving problems becomes the norm." Instead of simply identifying and complaining about problems, "students decide that they want to make a difference and do something about it."

Paré and Meaden are certainly making a difference, said Geddis. "They always attract quite a crowd when they're on these (computers)."