AYER/SHIRLEY -- At Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School, the library is a hub of activity, as United Way Youth Venture Champion Kathryn Lyon touches base with groups of students interested in finding their own creative solutions to problems through community service.

These United Way Youth Venture (UWYV) teams are part of a program designed to help youth develop leadership skills, build confidence, and provide service to their communities.

One group of Ayer Shirley social entrepreneurs is The Cardiac Quest, a venture created to raise funds to purchase and place Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) in and around Ayer and Shirley, and to provide support for training sessions for community members involved in youth sports.

The venture first started last school year as Heartstrong, with sixth-graders Grace Soultanian, Allie Cebollero, and Jacquelyn Stiles. Now in seventh grade, Soultanian is attending the Parker Charter Essential School, and Stiles is enrolled in Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School.

This split presented a unique challenge for the group, which had already raised enough funds to provide AEDs for Taylor Field near the middle school, Pirone Park, and Sandy Pond Recreation Area.

When Soultanian left the school, said Cebollero, the students agreed that the funds already raised would be split between Heartstrong and the newly named Cardiac Quest, which added a new member, Alana Miska.

"Right now, we are still working on fundraising," said Cebollero, of the team's short-term goals. "We were going to split the money (raised toward the AEDs) in half between the groups, but haven't gotten it yet."

Cebollero said that once The Cardiac Quest receives the funds it helped to raise, the team is planning to purchase an AED for the Wilde Road Soccer Field in Shirley.

One of their next goals is to survey the Groton community, where Stiles is now attending school, to extend their help with providing AEDs where needed, plus CPR/AED training to athletic coaches.

We want to make sure that all baseball and other sports coaches know how to use it by taking CPR classes," said Cebollero.

Miska, the newest member of the team, said that she joined after she overheard the girls discussing ideas about how to raise money.

Besides the fun aspect of fundraising, "I thought about how they were raising money for all of these sports centers, and how they didn't have (an AED), and I felt bad about that," she said.

The team has just wrapped up its online Pampered Chef fundraiser, and is continuing to raise funds via an online campaign on www.Giveforward.com .

Soldier Supporters

A newly formed YV team is that of sixth-grade students Jeremy Fish, Abigail Billings, Erica Lopes, and Garreth Austin. They and fellow student Shannon Farley just started a venture called Soldier Supporters.

"Mrs. Lyon gave us the idea," explained Fish, who said he was assigned YV as one of his enrichment blocks at the school. "We've been working on the fliers around town hall and trying to get a 5K to raise money for the veterans."

"We already talked to the fire department and (Shirley Police Sergeant Alfreda) Cromwell," said Billings. "She said she would help us."

"We want to raise money so that the veterans can have more food, socks, and other luxuries they need so they can have a healthy environment," added Austin.

Fish said that he learned from Lyon about "a group that went around to the veterans' centers with presents and snacks for them."

The idea for Soldier Supporters, he said, "is that instead of buying something they already have, just give them the money so they can buy what they need."

Billings said that the group is proposing a Memorial Day weekend 5K race in downtown Shirley.

To raise funds for the race, "Maybe we'll sell bracelets at school and other events," she said.

Relieving Student Anxiety

Owen Naughton, a student who recently moved to the area from Milford, said that he and classmate Thomas Woodward are considering creating a venture in which students "paint instead of expressing anger."

The idea came to him, he said, when he and another friend were making worry boxes in guidance counselor Megan Cushing's office. 

Worry boxes are designed to help children reduce worry and anxiety by literally placing their worries, written on pieces of paper, into the boxes. Later, at some point in the day, children may open the box and talk about each worry and how they are feeling, and share some ways to handle the problems causing the worries.

"We were painting, and we were like, 'Hey, this is kind of fun. We should start a Youth Venture for this," Naughton revealed. That way, he said, students could have fun at the same time as handling their anxieties in a positive manner.

Tutor Team

Eighth-graders Jonathan Bremer, Jake Mineai, Aiden Fish, and Troy Mitchell started their own YV tutoring service, the Tutor Team, just a few weeks ago.

"We like to help kids with the subjects they struggle with," Mineai explained. "We help them study for tests and quizzes, give them extra practice, give them video games, and other ways to help them."

The team met with the school guidance counselors and publicized its tutoring service with fliers posted around the school. They already have eight sixth- and seventh-grade pupils who meet with them after school for an hour a week.

Bremer said that the idea for the team came to Mitchell after three of the boys had made a pact to always do their homework.

"In English we read about some people who made this pact, so we made a homework pact. Then Troy said, 'Why not just make it a Youth Venture?'"

The original pact still helps the boys get their homework done, according to Mineai. He keeps a weekly homework record, and those who complete their homework earn Jolly Ranchers.

Their protégés do not receive candy, but if they stick with the tutoring consistently and bring up their grades, the tutors would like to reward them with a pizza party.

They are currently working on an action plan to present to a panel of community volunteers. That panel will be charged with offering constructive criticism and ensuring that their idea is sustainable and meets specific criteria. The YV panel may then offer the team a start-up grant of up to $1,000, or make the funding contingent on certain provisions.

The young men said that they are hoping to raise enough money, not just for pizza, but also for a bus that could be used to transport students who stay after school. Currently, there is no bus for students who participate in after-school activities.

With eight students already, "We are looking for more tutors," said Mitchell, who added that the team is also working on ideas for tutor recruitment.

A Youth Venture is not a short-term project designed to last for just a month or a year. Its infrastructure must be sustainable, and that is something that the Tutor Team is already anticipating.

Next year, when the boys are in high school, "An Ayer bus could go from Ayer to the high school and drop students off," Bremer mused.