In the summer of 2022, Leo C. and Ruoxuan (Emily) C. co-founded a volunteer-based organization, Kids Helping Kids, which aims to teach software coding skills to students who are directly impacted by the war in Ukraine. Leo C. is in 10th grade at Skyline High School, and Emily is in sixth grade at Pine Lake Middle School.
After a successful kickstart, the siblings are gearing up for another summer of teaching in 2023.
“I want to be the candle that gives warmth and light,” says Leo C., who became inspired to start Kids Helping Kids after reading the news about the war during dinner one night. "There was horrible destruction happening and I wanted to provide hope,” he says.
Emily describes the project as meaningful because it helps students who need support.
“They lost everything, but did not lose hope,” she says.
Leo C. and Emily aren’t doing the work alone. Other volunteers include their friends, senior Bruce Q., junior Youran (Leo) L., junior Jiahao (Jacob) W. and eighth-grader Florence Q., who also serve as teachers for the summer coding program.
When asked about the experience of collaborating with close friends on a project of this magnitude, Leo L. says working with friends to accomplish a common goal is what makes the process more enjoyable.
Similarly, Jacob describes the project as fun and exciting.
“It’s a totally new experience for me, facing a different time zone, culture and language,” says Jacob.
Leo C. says that his friends' contributions to the program makes him feel grateful.
“They designed lessons [and] are taking it seriously... I’m appreciative,” he says.
To assist them in their efforts, Sergei Vakarin, who currently lives in Ukraine, serves as the project partner for Kids Helping Kids. Leo C. and Emily’s mother, Cloe Zeng, also supports the group and connected her children with Vakarin to bring the vision to life.
In last summer’s program, a total of 36 students ranging from 11 to 17 years old participated in the coding class. For the summer of 2023, Leo C. and colleagues are expecting enrollment numbers to be similar, if not higher.
The coding program adopts a hybrid learning model, with the students in Ukraine meeting Vakarin in person at a library there while Leo C., Emily and their fellow volunteers teach lessons virtually using Google Classroom. Even though language barriers and hybrid learning are complicated, Vakarin’s translations help make it possible.
“The language barrier was a challenging part, which shows the importance of knowing more than one language. In addition, the online nature of international teaching makes it harder to pull off,” says Bruce.
To successfully run the program, it requires a team effort, where accessibility is a core focus of theirs.
“I and our Ukrainian team organized the logistics and interpretation of the courses,” says Vakarin. “My team is responsible for the program administration in Ukraine, we provide computers, internet connection, textbooks, translation and food for the kids. Also, we provide a safe place for them during the darker moments of the war.”
In preparation for the program, the student teachers prepare slideshow presentations for each coding unit, which are used to support their teaching over the camp’s two-week span.
“It's an honor to be able to teach stuff that I like to others overseas,” says Leo L., who hopes that more people can enjoy computer science.
In addition, Leo C. describes the experience of teaching students outside of the nation as unreal.
While connecting with students in Ukraine presents Leo C. with an experience that feels dream-like, he understands how life on the battlegrounds of Ukraine are all too real. He recalls an experience he had while teaching a coding lesson that introduced him to the realities of war; the session came to a complete halt after an air-raid siren disrupted the class and forced students to evacuate the area to safety. Instead of canceling the lesson, Leo C. decided to keep the meeting open in case students wanted to continue learning.
An hour had passed before students were able to return to class.
“It felt unimaginable to see them go into the shelters,” he says.
Despite witnessing a glimpse of the harsh realities of the war on Ukraine, Leo C. describes meeting students and sharing knowledge as a miraculous experience that he hopes to continue.
“I want to get more people involved after I graduate,” he says.
Leo C.’s role currently includes leading the group of volunteers and organizing fundraisers to help with program costs (with help from Emily). Last year’s fundraising effort was supported by Issaquah Rotary Club and community members.
“I have reached out to the mayor of Sammamish, our U.S. representative and U.S. senator for their support,” says Leo C. At the time of writing this article, he is assisting Vakarin and the city of Irpin, Ukraine in an effort to establish a sister city agreement between the Ukrainian city and Sammamish, Washington. Leo C.’s information and request has been passed to Sammamish’s City Manager’s Office by the office of Congresswoman Kim Schrier.
He also reached out to UNICEF for support, to which they responded and have invited him to be a volunteer for the organization.
Leo C.’s efforts to ensure he can continue to support others, along with the helping hands of fellow volunteers, is felt by Vakarin and Ukrainian students.
“I and Ukrainian kids that were displaced because of the war are grateful to Leo C., Emily and their partners who launched the Kids Helping Kids program for Ukraine. The program brought hope to many kids who have already participated and/or will benefit soon from this program. It helps them continue their education and realize their dreams despite all challenges and interruptions,” says Vakarin.
Because Kids Helping Kids is still in the early stages of its development, Leo C. says they have yet to discuss any forms of expansion beyond Ukraine, but that he believes the program can eventually help students in other countries as well.
“Technology plus compassion will make it possible.”
(Header Image) Pictured left to right: Florence Q., Ruoxuan (Emily) C., Youran (Leo) L., Bruce Q., Leo C. and Jiahao (Jacob) W.