A group of young people pore over a tangle of complex circuit boards and wires strewn across a classroom table, while intricate lines of code flash onto a projector screen overhead. The scene could be mistaken for a computer science lab at Caltech or UCLA. In fact, it is a small classroom at the Wilmington Senior Citizen Center.
Each Monday and Thursday local high school students gather to participate in Code for the Future, the technology workshop run by the United Wilmington Youth Foundation (UWYF) that aims to introduce students to the basics of computer science in a relaxed and stimulating environment.
“We got our certification [from code.org] three years ago, and since then interest just kept growing,” says Robert A. Trani, the Co-Founder and current Secretary of UWYF, who leads each session.
A self-described “retired gang member,” Trani founded UWYF in the early nineties as a program to steer young people away from the path of drug addiction and violence. It has since grown into one of the area’s most visible and active non-profit foundations, sponsoring numerous community festivals, art projects, and educational seminars. Code for the Future is the foundation’s latest and most ambitious project.
Trani says he started the coding program with the knowledge that, too often, young people from minority and working-class communities like Wilmington miss out on the kind of foundational training that can ease the path to high-paying careers in the technology sector.
“We want to get our kids prepared for any technological jobs that may become available, whether through the port, the refineries, Boeing, Space X,” Trani says. “If those jobs are going to come, they should be filled by people from the community.”
In recounting the success of Code for the Future, Trani is quick to credit his former colleagues at the Banning High School Parent Center and the Harbor City Boys and Girls Club — both of which co-sponsored the program in its first years.
But it was in 2016, with UWYF now running the program on its own, that Trani’s ambition truly blossomed. What if Code for the Future incorporated not just training in software engineering, but hardware engineering as well?
In particular, Trani had an idea for an ambitious project that would allow students to see their hard work pay off in the form of a tangible, computer-based project.
Trani says he contacted several computer science professionals from schools across the Los Angeles area, hoping someone might be willing to volunteer their time to help him realize his ambitious vision.
He found no takers.
“They all told me that what I wanted to do would cost at least 20,000 dollars,” Trani says.
Eventually, Trani was able to enlist the help of Paul Pereira, another Wilmington native whom Trani had known through Pereira’s wife. The easy-going father of a college-aged daughter, Pereira holds a degree in computer science from the West Point Military Academy. With his expertise and connection to Wilmington, Pereira was the perfect partner in helping to kick Code for the Future into the next gear.
“He basically came in and built the whole project from the ground up,” Trani says in obvious admiration of his colleague.
Pereira shares Trani’s sentiments regarding the untapped potential of Wilmington youth. “No one’s grabbing our top-of-the-line youth and getting them on the path,” he says, adding that he believes students should ideally be introduced to programs like Code for the Future in grades five to eight.
As for why he himself feels drawn to local charity work (which he has been involved with for more than a decade), Pereira recalls the local congressman who wrote him a letter of recommendation to help him win acceptance to West Point.
“Since someone reached out to help me, I feel I have to give back,” Pereira says.
Angel Solorio, a Junior at Banning, has been with the program since March. He credits Pereira for his aspiration to study software development. He hopes to attend Cal State Pomona after graduating in 2019.
While Solorio admits that initially he thought the program would be “boring,” he says his interest grew after looking up YouTube videos demonstrating the possibilities of the Rasberry Pi (the tiny circuit board that forms the basis of the Code for the Future’s engineering project.) “You can use it to build a robotic arm, a retro game consul, and even, I heard, a drone.”
Liz Garcia, a sophomore at Banning, is the sole female in a group of eleven. She says she learned of the program via her brother, who in turn heard about it when he met Trani at the Wilmington Book Fair.
Garcia says she’s interested in exploring the field of computer science and engineering, but would like to keep her options open. We ask her if she ever finds it intimidating being the only female in a classroom full of boys. “Kind of,” she says, cracking a smile. “But I’m used to it.”