Absolute Folly

Absolute folly! A complete waste of time and resources! A recipe for disaster! An olympic-style, Honduran robotic team, particularly one from the backwoods of Camasca and Concepción, Intibucá is equivalent to the Jamaican bobsled team. This was the reaction to the lame-brained idea of Shoulder to Shoulder assisting and supporting the creation of a seven person, high school robotics team to compete internationally. I have to admit that I shared some of those reactions when we decided to do this in February. How could kids living in extreme poverty — who had little or no resources at their high schools, many of who had never played a video game — design and build a robot, travel to the United States, and compete among 157 other nations? I and all the other naysayers were proven wrong. Not only did they meet the challenge, they excelled. They achieved 40th among 163 different teams (the top 25%) and third among all teams from the Americas. They had an experience that will shine on for a lifetime, and hopefully inspire them to achieve previously unimaginable goals.

WHS & Honduras in DC
Team Honduras with Team 341 “Miss Daisy,” Wissahickon High School, Ambler, PA

They dedicated themselves to working on this daily at our bilingual school with two committed teachers from their high school. They accepted assistance and support with grace and humility. Alan Ostrow and his robotics team from Pennsylvania Skyped weekly with the team, and he made two trips to Honduras. The team initially received little encouragement, even from other Hondurans, and in spite of this found the courage to believe in their inherent dignity and worth.
In the last few weeks before they left, things started to change for them. They started getting some media attention both locally and nationally. They were invited to the Presidential Palace to meet the First Lady. They secured passports and visas. The robot was built and functioning well. What had started out as pure folly was about to become real.

Team Honduras at Coy Middle School, Beavercreek, OH, with other robotics' teams
Team Honduras at Coy Middle School, Beavercreek, OH, with other robotics’ teams

The travel day itself was one of the most exhausting days of my life, as well as theirs I’m sure, both physically and emotionally. We woke at 2:00 AM to board a bus for a seven hour trek to San Pedro Sula Airport. We thought we arrived with sufficient time at the airport. But none of these kids had any familiarity with air travel, and Honduras has strict laws and legal procedures for traveling with minors, particularly those unaccompanied by a parent. We literally all got on the plane minutes before the doors were closed and it pulled away from the terminal. In one sense it was fortunate that our connecting flight was late in Houston. It gave the seven young people time to begin soaking in all the sensory stimuli they had never before encountered or even dreamed of. They walked through the airport from gate to gate, heads spinning, drawn this way and that by what they could only understand as exotic attractions. The plane was delayed for a long time, and we would not get to Washington until early the next morning. Between retrieving our robot and luggage and hooking up with the FIRST Global driver who would transport them to their dormitory, it was at least 3:00 AM. Personally, my head did not find a pillow until 4:00 AM.
At 7:00 AM, they were all up and at DAR Constitution Hall to begin their practice rounds. I and Laura, staying at a different dormitory further away from the hall, did not arrive until 9:00. Still, we were beyond exhaustion. I took great pride in having gotten them there, something I would never have imagined possible. I also found myself in tremendous admiration of what they had already accomplished against what seemed insurmountable obstacles. There was something these kids had that was tremendously special, but I hadn’t as of yet named it, or understood it. What was the purpose in doing this, in exerting such great effort and resources, overcoming entrenched obstacles, simply to bring seven poor kids from Honduras to the United States with a robot? What would be the gain for these kids, for Shoulder to Shoulder, for Intibucá, for Honduras, or for the world? What was the meaning of it? I sat in the stands watching the practice rounds, hoping, perhaps even praying, for some insight.

atcompetition w flag w don pavon

Team Honduras was paired up with Kazakhstan and another country against three opposing countries. Alexis stood next to a young man from Kazakhstan. Alexis is a gifted student to be sure, but he was even more sleep deprived than me and he speaks no English. Just as I considered this whole odyssey a folly back in February, now I would never in my wildest fancy believe that Alexis from Concepción, Intibucá could manage conversation with a sixteen year old from Kazakhstan.  Clearly impossible! But I’m watching something that defies all logic. The teenager from Kazakhstan throws his arm around Alexis’ shoulder and they open their bodies to one another. Both have wide smiles on their faces. Alexis says something and they both are laughing. They are engaged. They are forming a friendship, and they are doing it with such ease and grace, and I am thinking this moment should be enshrined and worshipped. I have received the insight I was searching for.

With Honduran Ambassador to the US
With Honduran Ambassador to the US

Alexis and the teenage boy from Kazakhstan yielded a reflection for me. There is so much in our world that belittles and demeans us. There is war, oppression, and poverty. These are born of fear, mistrust, and insecurity; a basic unwillingness to risk relationship with someone who seems different than me. These terrible sins against the dignity of human life are born in fear, but sustained in cowardice. It takes a great deal of energy and resources to maintain that cowardice. But peace is born in the simple belief that all others, no matter how different they appear, are worthy of attention and engagement. Peace is born in trust, but sustained in courage. Oddly, cowardice is so costly, so consuming, whereas courage demands only the natural response of a heart. One teenage boy lets his hand fall softly against another’s shoulder and suddenly all things are new and nothing is impossible.


Please forgive the length of this blog. There is just so much that happened for us and the robotics team in their journey to the US that I want to do it justice. After the competition in Washington, the team traveled to Ohio. They met with people who are supporting them and will support them and the education mission of Shoulder to Shoulder. This is not the end for the robotics team, but only the beginning. They will continue to meet here in Honduras and invest themselves in transforming their amazing experience into hope and service for other young people and all the people of Southern Intibucá. We have many people to thank for the success of this incredible journey and much more to share.

  • Alan and Wendy Ostrow and the young people they work with in robotics, Team 341 “Miss Daisy,” who journeyed along with our seven students.
  • Angel and Joe Allen who have visited us in Honduras and will come again. The families they enlisted to take our students into their homes and treat them as members of their families.
  • The robotics teams from Ohio that gathered at Beaver Creek School to share with our Honduran team.
  • Ross and Stacey McNutt who opened up their airfield, their simulators, and their planes to us. Our students flew across the skies of Ohio in single-engine aircrafts. They also received us in celebration at their home.
  • Our trip to King’s Island was particularly memorable.
  • Dick and Bonnie Buten of Cincinnati, who have already given so much to our education mission in material support and passion, gave us two days rest in their home. Their neighbors shared their pool.
  • Daniel Wade, who volunteered at the Good Shepherd Bilingual School, gave us a tour of his high school as well as some insights into the struggles for Latin American teens living in the US. And Fide Gehner from Concepción, Intibuca, who shared with us for that entire day.
  • Wayne Waite, his wife Christina, his son Daniel, his daughter-in-law Nidia, and his two grandchildren Jonathon and Matthew (Mateo). It was Wayne that initially said yes to this folly and has offered unwavering support.
  • Dean Kamen, Joe Sestek, the FIRST Global team, and an unnamed teenage boy from Kazakhstan.


Click here for a montage of Photos


Opening Ceremony Featuring Honduras

Alan Ostrow Interview with First Global

Paul Manship Interview with First Global

Video Featuring Honduras with Match #5

Robots and Transcendence

Haley, Paul, Sandy, Laura,

You might think robots are a fairly new invention. Oddly, on January 25 of this year, they celebrate 96 years of imaginative and real existence when they first debuted on a Prague stage in Karel Capek’s controversial Sci-Fi play R. U. R. (Rossumovi Univerzáini Roboti – Rossumov’s Universal Robots). Robots seem to fascinate human thought, ambition, and dreams. If you’re close to my age, your first memory of robots may be of one simply named “Robot” who flung his arms up and down, teetering in exaggerated panic, and yelling out, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” Beyond that, my Sci-Fi cultural formation has been underpinned by a series of robots:  Rosie from the Jetsons, Rock-Em-Sock-Em robots, HAL, Optimus Prime, the adorable R2D2 and C-3PO, and WALL-E. Our fascination with robots may have something to do with their being created in our own image and designed to overcome the challenges of our finite nature. Though they often symbolize the tragic consequence of striving to be godlike as in the dark theme of Capek’s play, they also relate our sense of inner beauty and purpose. Somehow robots give expression to our capacity and drive to transcend the limitations of mortal existence. The Terminator, later Governator, says it best in his signature Austrian cyborg accent, “I’ll be back.”

Performance of Capek's RUR in Prague
Performance of Capek’s RUR in Prague

Robots arrived on the Frontera of Intibucá last week. They came with a rather eclectic ambassadorial Shoulder to Shoulder team. Our board president, Wayne Waite, organized the trip of six individuals who had no knowledge of one another prior to the trip. They came with diverse purpose and hope. Paul and Sandy, a couple on the heels of retirement, came to explore and discern a possible long-term commitment to living in Honduras and volunteering with Shoulder to Shoulder’s ever evolving education mission. Ian, a fourth year business major at the University of Dayton, also came to discern long-term volunteering. Haley, a registered nurse from Oklahoma, came to begin her service with Shoulder to Shoulder working with brigades and the bilingual school.  Tim Gunderman, a Knight of Malta USA, a seasoned gentleman whose heart is attached to service to the poor, came to see our nutritional supplement program in action in the hope of raising funds for its continuation and expansion. Not knowing one another and not sharing in any obvious purpose, how could this group come together with a unified vision? And what in the world does it have to do with robots?

The Team
The Team

In 1989 Dean Kamen established FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to excite the youth of America in the value of investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. FIRST sponsors robotic competitions among youth of various ages. Now, FIRST is hoping to move its success among US youth to an international level, sponsoring the first annual “International Robot Olympics,” 16-18 July 2017 in Washington DC. The president, Joe Sestak, of this new non-profit, the International FIRST Committee (IFC), spoke with our president Wayne about putting together a Honduran team for the competition called FIRST Global. Wayne, the undiscerning, don’t-let-reality-threaten-your-dreams, ever the optimist, immediately replied, “Sure, no problem.” Obviously, there have been problems. 

This team that came with Wayne on his quixotic mission had not even known about robots until days or even hours before the trip. A snow storm cancelled flights out of Dayton, moving the trip back a day, and the diverse group of travelers came to know one another while running frantically through unfamiliar airport terminals and hotel lobbies (Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!). Joe Sestak and IFC intended to send a professional videographer on the trip to record the coming together of the team, but that individual could not get a Visa into Honduras because she was traveling from Peru where there is a threat of yellow fever. That obstacle was overcome by renting video equipment in Tegucigalpa and promoting Ian to the role of film crew. Originally, we planned to form a team with two representatives from Camasca on the Frontera with a larger group from the American School in Tegucigalpa. The American School is a distinguished, private school that has a lot of experience with technology and robotics competition. Though they have committed themselves to our support in technical training, they declined our invitation to be part of the competition itself due to scheduling conflicts. Now we had to form a team of high school students exclusively from the Frontera. This was the largest challenge.

Tim Gunderman with a Family enrolled in the nutrition program
Tim Gunderman with a Family enrolled in the nutrition program

Mr. Tim Gunderman has never been to the Frontera, though he’s familiar with Honduras. Driving along the washed out roads with our four-wheel vehicle, taking forty-five minutes to traverse a six mile distance while avoiding the cliffs, he turned to me and expressed his amazement. “Here?!, in this totally isolated, resourced challenged area where water runs only every other day for an hour and sometimes doesn’t run at all. Here?!, where the electricity, when it is not off, isn’t powerful enough to run a microwave. Here?!, where families of ten live on the sides of mountain cliffs in one room huts. Here?!, where the woman in the same house of ten boils hand-made soap on a stove inside the house without a chimney to exhaust the fumes. Here?!, where children are malnourished and at risk for chronic disease and death  and we are not sure if we can find funding to continue their nutritional supplement. Here?!, this is where Shoulder to Shoulder is bringing first-class, computer technology, internet capacity, and robots in order to revolutionize a system of education and create development?” I thought briefly about his question, and then simply answered, “Yes.”

While Mr. Gunderman witnessed our nutrition program and the distribution of the supplement Chispuditos in the small towns of the Frontera with me and Wayne and filmed by Ian, Sandy and Paul with Laura worked on initiating the robot project. Sandy, a retired teacher, has worked with robotics competitions and the LEGO product Mindstorm. In fact she was able to bring the product with her and the teenagers will be working with it over the next months. Fourteen young people from Concepción and Camasca have been enrolled in the program and will work two hours daily on the project under the supervision of local instructors. Dionisio, 14, lives with his family in the small village of San Ignacio. He walks forty-five minutes to and from the high school every day over a mountain. He’s never been outside of Camasca. His father works the land for a living and is a leader in his church community. His mother takes care of her home and makes and sells pottery to augment their meager income. But Dionisio is on the team, he will commit himself to it with great passion, and hopes to be chosen to go to Washington, DC in July.

Robot at the bilingual school
Robot at the bilingual school

I can hear your questioning skepticism. Why? There is always that doubt and fear of technical advancement. If (insert preferred deity’s name here) wanted the human person to fly… But humans do have brains and hearts and they will ever consider the possibilities of transcendence. I’ll let you in on a little secret. This has nothing to do with robots. It has everything to do with Dionisio scaling that mountain every day. It has everything to do with seeing children suffering from nutrition and thinking, “My God, this cannot be allowed.” It has everything to do with six people who seemingly have nothing in common coming to Honduras on a trip and discovering a common goal of helping people to find dignity, worth, and well-being.

Melisa (far left), a robotics student, with Wayne Waite and family.
Melisa (far left), a robotics student, with Wayne Waite and family.

Why was I, and perhaps you as well, so fascinated with robots as a young boy. Why did Karel Capek write a play about them decades before they became reality? Could it simply be the unbounded nature of our imagination? Is the human person enslaved by limitations and mortality? Are we to be forever chained to the scorn and indignity of poverty? Can we move beyond it? I think perhaps robots are the expressions of the best we want to be. Moving beyond the possible, overcoming the obstacles in the way, is the only thing that has ever truly revealed the human soul. We are the designers of our destinies.

**** Read an article on the Robotics Project in Honduras newspaper La Tribuna
**** Link to First website