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Filipino teens receive ‘gift of options’ from other teens

Filipino Teens Gift of Options

TEENS at a local Regional Rehabilitation Center for Youth (RRCY) have seen their life opportunities improve as they learned computer coding through a program by Teach and Play, a teen-created initiative.

After benefiting over 150 teens at a first RRCY, the program is rapidly being adopted by other RRCYs throughout the country, changing lives one teen at a time.

It all started in Tanauan, Leyte, last Christmas season after another typhoon hit, where a first group of 25 boys attended a coding class. The draw was a playful introduction to possibly learning skills or at the very least getting the boys acquainted and opening a window into the tech world.

Computing language was not the biggest obstacle. It was the Waray dialect most familiar to the kids in Leyte and the lack of equipment and connectivity at the RRCY that combined with carceral rules to create a formidable challenge.

Teach and Play was able to devise an example-based teaching method that could start from zero knowledge to gradually move participants up in the knowledge chain one building block at a time. Each block came with the reward of having mastered a small practical step in coding. For example, code makes objects on a screen move and come alive. It’s the realization that a machine can be taught through a succession of simple steps that particularly appealed to the boys: a sense of control in an otherwise powerless existence.

The idea was teens teaching teens.

A VISION BUILT ON THE RUINS OF YOLANDA

Teach and Play is the creation of eighteen-year-old Thaddeus Pompidou, a grandson of former Leyte Governor Kokoy Romualdez. He grew up in Paris and New York City, but every year he visited his Lolo’s hometown for the Holidays. Thaddeus and his cousins and siblings would help distribute relief goods and holiday presents such as toys school supplies , sports and music equipment in different baranggays.

A highlight of these visits was teaming-up with his Filipino cousins, to play basketball at the local RRCY compound, a facility that took in teenagers – mostly 16-and-17-year old – who were in conflict with the law.

Interactions with the boys impressed Thaddeus.

He felt, however, that the impact of such deeds, while worthy, was too temporary to make a difference. When Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest in recorded history, made landfall in Leyte, devastating the capital city of Tacloban, Thaddeus was on the ground over the holidays 6 weeks after the tragedy, volunteering in the relief effort. What he saw there changed his perspective on life as he spoke to many kids whose entire existence had been uprooted by the disaster. Thaddeus wanted to be able to impart something of himself and help the boys do something meaningful in their lives. Something lasting. What could he do?

CODING WHIZ

Thaddeus discovered early on the power – and the joy – of technology. “I always loved computers and was lucky enough to be good at programming,” he says. At first, he made simple games. He later moved on to more challenging puzzles. He learned how to code.

“Coding teaches you how to think differently, and how to break things down into smaller manageable components and solve problems step by step logically,” said Thaddeus.

He became so good that one summer he got an internship in Israel while he was still in high school. While there, he was offered a full time job despite being only 16; his parents, though, did not allow him to move to and work in another country so far away from home.

Back in the US, a mentor, Daniel Goldberg, encouraged his interest in cybersecurity. Today, Thaddeus is working with Team8, a cyber security business that has launched at least a dozen startups in the past few years, many of which have become sector leaders.

Notwithstanding these early achievements, Thaddeus remains a kid – a student. His high school in New York has a strong peer mentoring program where older students teach younger ones subjects which they have somewhat mastered. He found that he enjoyed peer tutoring in computer science and math.

‘TEACH A MAN TO FISH’

He simply wanted to show the boys different possibilities that may align with their talents and interests that may be translated into a viable marketable skill.

“In the meantime, they would have fun getting to know the technology.”

And that’s how the idea for Teach and Play began.

TEACH AND PLAY

Thaddeus had found something he was really good at (computers), something he enjoyed doing (mentoring), and something he found meaningful (helping less fortunate youngsters prepare for their future). He immediately set to work. Through Teach and Play, he arranged to partner with RRCY Tanauan – that same place where he played basketball when on vacation in the Philippines. In January 2020, Teach and Play donated seven computer units, and routers and then he came to Leyte and spoke to the boys about technology.

Georgina Bulasa, center head of RRCY Tanauan, said they handpicked some of the boys who were more advanced in the Alternative Learning System to listen to Thaddeus’ talk. Many of the residents of RRCY have not had sufficient education, much less exposure, to computers.

Thaddeus felt anxious about speaking with these kids as a group – he was more comfortable with one-on-one sessions.

Then again, he bore in mind that the Foundation aimed exactly for that: teens teaching teens. He wanted to spark interest in technology among the boys and perhaps later partner with other organizations and businesses for intensive training programs for them. The objective is to help build skills enabling them to have viable job options when they get out of the RRCY and start afresh.

Thaddeus remembers that during his talk, there was one particular boy who had never seen a computer and was afraid to even touch it. As the day progressed, he worked with this boy until he became more confident and relaxed.

“I remember seeing his face completely light up when he was able to make his character move around the screen. His attitude completely changed, and he began helping the people sitting next to him,” Thaddeus said.

He promised to return soon for more face-to-face training, and that he would send basic training videos for the boys to watch. He also committed to stay in touch through WhatsApp and FaceTime, of course under supervision by the RRCY’s administrators.

As a way of coping in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Thaddeus started making short-form videos about computers and technology that the boys could watch and learn from.

Picking up from his example, friends from New York have volunteered to share their own modules to the RRCY boys as well – one friend liked fixing engines, another, a would-be architect, and two others offered to teach guitar and ukulele.

Besides having unstable internet access due to technical reasons, RRCY boys are not allowed access to YouTube and other similar sites, so these videos, delivered by USB drive, would be helpful in exploring their interests.

OPTIONS ON THE TABLE

The RRCY boys come from challenging situations – with parents who cannot be around because they have to find work in faraway places. Despite his privilege, Thaddeus was keenly aware of how much he and these boys have in common.

“We’re the same age, we laugh at the same jokes… The biggest difference I really started to notice is that it boils down to the different circumstances we were born into – That one difference gave us either severely limited or an incredible variety of options and exposure to opportunities.

“I had a whole lot more options. So that is where I want to help – to be instrumental in providing a few new options that might match up to interests and skills they might not know they even had.”

The words of Ms. Bulasa made an impression on him — that giving them opportunities to heal and tools that they can learn to use in the present to build a brighter future would help erase their past.

More importantly, it is the ethos instilled in him by his grandfather.

“My Lolo said luxury was having good options and the ultimate luxury is the ability to help provide great options to others.”

Thaddeus may have grown up and may be living abroad, but he knows where his roots – and his duties – lie.

A RAY OF HOPE

Teach and Play visibly resonated with the Tanuan RRCY boys, over 150 of which enrolled. Coding there is now an activity the boys discuss and challenge themselves to pursue. Newfound coding skills have been helpful finding apprenticeships for the boys as they approached their release date.

Following the sponsorship of Ms. Bulasa, Teach and Play is now active in four other RRCYs and has reached other 500 teens. Plans are being made to roll-out the program to all the country’s 25 RRCYs and to include girls as well as boys in other centers.

“The internet is the great equalizer,” said Thaddeus.

Ultimately, Teach and Play wants to give everyone a chance to master it.