By Michael Hartwell
GARDNER -- A recent Friday was the kick-off event for the United Way of North Central Massachusetts Youth Venture program, where middle- and high-school students from throughout the region were given training and inspiration to achieve community-service projects of their own making.
The morning event was held at Mount Wachusett Community College, where college President Daniel Asquino urged them to focus on team work.
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together," he said.
Other partners in the program include SimplexGrinnell of Westminster, the Department of Justice and the Leominster Public School Employees organization.
"When you wake up every morning, you have an opportunity to do something different," said Bob Chauvin, president of SimplexGrinnell. "Being part of a youth venture team is an opportunity to be part of something that's much bigger than yourself."
Last year's event led to the establishment of 41 Youth Venture teams in the area, including one from Leominster High School called Let's Empower Advocate and Do. Members have used the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy to springboard into gun-control advocacy and to draw attention to mental-health issues.
The keynote speaker was Marlo Alvarado Custodio, a film maker and former community organizer from California who created a documentary that was shown by the U.S. Department of Education, the White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the CARE humanitarian organization.
"I don't think you all realize the infinite impact you have within yourself," said Custodio from the stage to the assembled students. "I don't think you realize how much difference one person can make."
Custodio grew up in a crime-ridden area and had some legal problems before a mentor guided him to the right path, he said. He now has his own video-production company and showed several videos he made for California hip-hop artists.
After he spoke, students broke into smaller groups for workshops led by Youth Venture volunteers, such as Kathleen Craigen. Craigen discussed with a group of seventh- and eighth-graders from Ayer Shirley Middle School about how to recruit volunteers for a public-service project.
Ariana Garcia, 13, an eighth-grader from Sky View Middle School in Leominster, said she wanted to use what she learned to help people, such as those suffering depression.
"In my school, there's a lot of bullying and harassment and I want to do something about it," she said.
She and classmate Shania Rivera are members of the school's Adventure Club, which is a community-service organization. Rivera said she wants to find some way to contribute through music and arts.
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