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With nearly 1,000 area students already participating in the program, United Way Youth Venture has received a significant boost, thanks to a $300,000 federal grant it received to expand the initiative, which creates social ventures with a positive impact on the community.

“These programs have a proven track record of reaching young people. This federal funding will make it possible for more students to participate, with the goal of reaching 20 percent of all students in the region within three years. Students, their families, and their communities will benefit,” commented U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Mass., who was instrumental in securing the grant.

According to Phil Grzewinski, president and CEO of United Way of North Central Massachusetts, the funding will allow the program to expand to other schools and communities. Currently, 12 schools from Fitchburg, Leominster, Shirley, Ayer and Winchendon participate in the program through 63 teams.

In 2002, United Way of North Central Massachusetts, in partnership with Ashoka, a global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs based in Arlington, Va., founded United Way Youth Venture, a unique and collaborative partnership that helps schools launch lasting social ventures.

It is a youth-led program that uses adults as guides to encourage student participants to think about ways to improve their community. After identifying an idea, they form a group of their peers, develop a business plan, and make their case before a board for seed money to launch their venture.

Regina Wironen, curriculum facilitator for Leominster public schools and United Way Youth Venture champion, said the program is contiguous because the students decide on the issue they want to address, and the best way to tackle it.

“In Leominster, we have teams that are focused on improving student safety, to another team who created an outdoor classroom, to yet another who are empowering students through a leadership academy,” commented Wironen. “In addition to making a difference in their community, they are learning invaluable skills that they’ll take with them into adulthood.”

“Empowering young people and promoting volunteerism helps create the building blocks for a better life for all,” commented Grzewinski, who also said the program complements its other core priorities of providing vital services in the area of income, education, health and safety net services.

Grzewinski said the program reaches students across all achievement levels.

“One of the most satisfying stories from the program was a mother who told us that United Way Youth Venture was responsible for keeping her son from dropping out of high school, and completing his education,” concluded Grzewinski.