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Shoreline high school students mentor team from Uganda in robot building challenge

The King's High School CyberKnights are mentoring students who were once child soldiers in Uganda, to compete in a robotics competition. (Photo: KOMO News)

SHORELINE, Wash. - It's a partnership born out of a shared love of robotics, but the students working together at King's High School in Shoreline couldn't have come from more different backgrounds.

All this week, five students from Beacon of Hope, a secondary school in Soroti, Uganda have been laboring with their mentors, the members of the King's High School CyberKnights robotics team, to build a robot for the First Tech Challenge competition.

It's a monumental step forward for the team from Uganda, whose members were once child soldiers, kidnapped from their families and forced to commit atrocities by Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebels fighting government forces in the country’s bloody civil war.

"The only thing I could see was death and at any time they could kill us," said Denish Odele, now 24, who was forced to learn to handle an AK-47 and had to survive by shooting people he knew.

He showed a scar the length of his forearm where a rebel commander cut it open with a bayonet after Denish didn't follow his order to find banana leaves for dinner.

For 40,000 children caught in the Ugandan civil war, hope was fleeting and survival was dim.

"We would not have any big dream," said Denish.

But then came a remarkable turnaround.

Denish was captured by government forces and beaten but survived. He made it to Beacon of Hope, run by Seattle based non-profit Pilgrim Africa. The intent of the school is to provide an educational opportunity for children caught in the civil war, many who survived without their parents.

The school wanted to have a science, technology, engineering and math focus (STEM) and started a robotics team.

Mikal Thompson, the coach for the CyberKnights robotics team and King's High School heard about Beacon of Hope and saw an opportunity.

"We went over there four years ago and brought four Lego kits over, taught the teachers how to do STEM with robotics," said Thompson.

So began a mentorship that has blossomed for both sides. For Thompson and his students, it was a dream to have the Ugandan team compete in a real high school robotics meet.

"Our goal is to teach them how to build a robot so they can go back to their school and teach other how to build a robot," said Daniel Wang, a senior on the CyberKnights team.

The two teams from different continents held weekly Skype calls. The students in Seattle would give lessons on how to build a robot from scratch. But, there was no way Ugandans could afford to compete in the United States. The goal was set.

The CyberKnights raised money, paid for the flights, found host families and this week, five members of the team joined the mentors and peers at King's High to build a competition robot.

"They did all the heavy lifting, all the hard work, this is their robot," said Wang.

The school says CyberKnights Uganda will be the first ever East African FTC Robotics team to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge this weekend.

"To provide and educational opportunity for mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, that very few students in Uganda are getting, to me that makes everything worth it," said Thompson. “It’s teaching our kids that they can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Denish is extreme happy with how his life has been turned around.

"My goal is to become an mechanical engineer," said Denish.

The former child solider who once carried an AK-47 where ever he went, now carries a controller and a laptop, and a desire to help others.

He's also learned that hope doesn't have to be lost.

"This gives me hope," said Denish. "We might still have dream and might accomplish it.

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