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Celebration of Service


Using robotics competition, Gonzalo Cerda Parra helps kids with cancer in Chile

Kids will be kids—even when they have cancer. And because life does not stop while they are trying to heal, children with serious illnesses still want to keep learning, playing and laughing as much as possible.

“I remember a day in our competition when a young boy was feeling faint, but he would not leave until it was finished,” says Gonzalo Cerda Parra, an IBM IT specialist in Chile and service leader in a LEGO® robotics program that engages children with cancer. “It showed me that in life, everything is possible.”

For several years, Gonzalo has volunteered with Fundación Nuestros Hijos (FNH), a non-profit in Santiago, Chile that, among its numerous services for children with cancer and their families, runs and manages in-hospital schools at Sotero del Rio and Exequiel González Cortés.

While being treated for their cancer, children attend classes and many participate in the FIRST® LEGO League (FLL) program—an international robotics program designed to get children, aged nine to 16, excited about science and technology. IBM in Chile has worked with Fundación Nuestros Hijos on FLL since 2005.

As Gonzalo says, “Children with cancer, like other children, need tools for their future, but their illness puts some challenges around providing them with education opportunities. That’s why Fundación Nuestros Hijos supplies them with a school inside the hospitals.”

Uncle Robot and an award winning team

The most common childhood cancers are leukemia, lymphoma, and brain cancer. However, according to many sources, when diagnosed early enough, and treated with the appropriate measures, approximately 70% of childhood cancers are curable.

While medical treatment is imperative, Gonzalo, whose parents both died of cancer, adds a child’s “state of mind is an important consideration for a better recovery. The robotics workshop is another positive factor that engages a child’s creativity and motivation.”

For the FLL, children build a robot using the LEGO MINDSTORMS® set and program it to score points on a playing surface. Each year the competition is based on a theme such as Power Puzzle, Climate Connections, or Arctic Impact, and more than 19,000 teams from 55 countries participate.

In 2008, a team of nine children from Fundación Nuestros Hijos, calling themselves “Campeones FNH” were invited to compete at the FLL World Festival in the United States, along with 81 other international teams.

A very proud Gonzalo, who some children affectionately call Uncle Robot, remembers the world event. “It was incredible. Our team, and their robot called Bug 2008, was awarded the Team Spirit award! The applause at the Super Dome [stadium] was amazing—this was a wonderful experience that changed their lives.”

All you need is your heart (robots optional)

IBM awarded Gonzalo and Fundación Nuestros Hijos a Catalyst Grant in 2011 to support the team’s entry into the upcoming national competition in Valparaiso, Chile, as well as to upgrade their computer equipment, and purchase materials for the science and art rooms.

More than 50 IBM volunteers have been recruited to assist with preparing this year’s team, which involves a six stage, multi-week effort to mentor the children in the theme—this year the theme is Food Factor—and robot construction. As the service leader, Gonzalo is responsible for preparing the workshop classes, as well as designing the robot prototype and preparing the related elements for the final presentation.

According to Gonzalo, the FLL program with Fundación Nuestros Hijos is among the most popular volunteer projects for IBM people in the area. A promotional video was an important part of his campaign to get even more volunteers interested in participating.

“For me, this project is important because it fills my life,” says Gonzalo, echoing a theme among other volunteers who indicate that they get as much from their service as the intended recipient. “I feel the love of the children and their interest in this exciting technology.”

His advice to those you are interested in doing any kind of volunteer project is to “just live and share with those who need your help, the only ‘tool’ you need is your heart.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service.

Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.