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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)."