United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

September 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Daniels

It’s never too early for a life-changing experience.

Two Daniel Alfaros. One Daniel Alfaro before Youth Venture. One Daniel Alfaro after.

 

A soft-spoken young man from the Boston neighborhood of Allston, Daniel had, for the majority of his life, been a classic introvert. He kept to himself and operated under the social radar throughout his high school career.

He wanted to be an accountant. He wanted to lose himself in numbers and spreadsheets, focus on decimal points and algorithms, and keep the interpersonal interaction to a minimum. It wasn’t that he disliked people; he was just socially awkward, unsure of his footing when it came to talking to others, and content to operate within his own, small circle.

But was it contentment? He wasn’t so sure. Perhaps it was about safety more than anything, a lifestyle that kept him from venturing out into the imposing frontier of socialization.

This nagging ember of “there’s so much more you can do” eventually sparked into a genuine desire to push the boundaries of his personality, to find an opportunity to grow as a person. The opportunity presented itself when he learned of Youth Venture, the student-powered social entrepreneurship initiative of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

United Way Youth Venture provides middle and high-schoolers grants to develop and execute projects geared towards addressing pressing issues in and around their community. Participants must craft business plans and pitch them to a panel of volunteers before receiving funding. Then, with the help of adult mentors and allies, they launch their projects. For the duration of the Venture, the mentors provide support and advice.

For Daniel, his project idea came into focus quickly. Drawing on his own experience, and knowing that there were other students out there grappling with their own esteem issues, he developed Real Talk. The idea was simple: through written expression, he would bring together peers who shared his unease in social situations, and as part of a collective, creative experience, build the comfort to communicate.

Throughout the year, Daniel held writers’ workshops at his school, John D. O’Bryant High School. Kids brought their work to the group, from poetry to prose, and through positive back-and-forth, refined their writing. Four newsletters’ worth of content and several poetry readings came out of the efforts; wellsprings of confidence sprung forth.

The most dramatic change came in Daniel himself. Running point on the project, prompting discussion and even coordinating shared events with a similar Youth Venture endeavor in Lawrence–a road trip that he admits he would have never, ever undertaken were it not for the project–drew him further and further out of his shell.

The experience was so impactful, Daniel eyed the next logical step: become a United Way Youth Venture mentor himself. For the 2012 installment of the initiative, two years after Real Talk, he was matched with a group working to spread awareness of Dominican culture in the city, while also putting together supply drives to send back to the Dominican Republic.

Today, Daniel laughs how his past self would be reacting to this news. If he fired up the Delorean and traveled back three years to inform the younger Daniel of all these developments, what kind of a shock to the system would that be? How would the quiet, tentative accountant-in-training respond to these revelations: that his future counterpart not only put himself so far out there as to coordinate a young writers’ group, develop poetry slams, distribute newsletters, leave the city limits for the first time, and become a youth mentor, but the original career plan had been discarded for pretty much the exact opposite professional pursuit:

“I’m studying human services at UMass Boston,” Daniel says. “I want to become a social worker and either stay in the city or travel to California to work with the immigrant population. I owe this to my experience with United WayYouth Venture .