As I sit with Nancy Mwirotsi in the lounge at my office, chatting about trust, technology, our community and what it takes to make a difference, she’s both bold and humble, unafraid to tell things as they are and reach for big dreams, but also ready to roll up her sleeves and do the things that need to be done to get where she -- and the kids she leads -- are going. It’s a powerful combination.
Nancy is the founder of Pi515, a group whose mission is “to challenge, inspire and teach technology skills to students with potential - empowering refugee and underserved youth to achieve success, garner influence and gain stability in their families and communities.” To date, Pi515 has helped over 40 kids from challenging situations find their calling and pursue higher education.
But she didn’t start out intending to teach technology to some of Iowa’s most vulnerable kids. In fact, she didn’t start out intending to work with technology or kids at all. Her story began, as it so often does, with trying to help one person.
Nancy had met a refugee woman who needed help. The woman had no job, no food, no clothes, and she and her two kids were sick. She had to find a job immediately, or she would lose her apartment as well. And there was nowhere to go if it didn’t work out here. As Nancy said, “They can’t go back. There is nothing to go back to. Everything they had has been taken.” So she stepped in, driving the woman to Perry repeatedly to beg for a job at a meat packing plant (the best job in the area that someone who didn’t speak the language could hope to get). She helped the woman and her children to get clothes. She took her to the store to buy food. And she helped her find a ride to her job every day. Things seemed to be improving. But then Nancy noticed something. The kids were alone a lot because their mother had a long commute on top of a full work day. They were skipping school and getting in trouble. Something had to be done.
But the pattern was larger than this one family. Nancy had noticed that in particular, girls were not being encouraged to pursue education. She knew that education was the key to unlocking a better future for these kids. But she had to capture their interest and get them engaged. So she started an after school program to keep them out of trouble. A dance class seemed like the right place to start.
Nancy laughs remembering. “The first class, I had four girls. And man, they were rude. We’re not doing this, we’re not doing that. We don’t like it. By the next class, we clicked.” Eventually she had 20+ kids attending. It was starting to work.
And yet, Nancy suspected there was more to be done. One day she was talking to a successful childhood friend who had made a name for herself in IT. She had even created an app that was being used by the United Nations. “She made it sound so simple,” Nancy says with a wry grin. I said, “We have to do a coding class.”
Since then, Pi515 has refined its programs with offerings for high school as well as middle-school students. The middle school students are taught by high school students, who are paid for their time so they get to experience the thrill of achievement and earning. They also provide a positive example for the middle school students. Nancy says “A kid cannot be who they don’t see.” But it can be difficult to find the one perfect mentor for each child. “I tell the kids, you don’t have to get it all from one person. You can take a piece from this person and piece from that person.”
This is important, because the kids Nancy works with are some of the most at-risk kids in our communities. It’s not always easy, but she knows that’s what makes the difference -- to help those who might not otherwise have a clear path forward. “Some people say I should only serve certain kids. I say, ‘No, I take all kids.’ There’s a reason why we’re in the hardest schools. We’ve had cases where we are in class and literally there are 3 cops out there -- in a middle school.” In short, Pi515 goes where it’s needed most, because breaking the cycle of debt and poverty helps those kids, their families, and the entire community.
When asked how she’s able to make a difference for kids who have so many challenges, she says simply, “The relationship. “Every kid has a story. As adults we sometimes want to tell them everything. I just listen.” Making a child feel heard (and seen) can have a powerful impact. Nancy tells a story about how touched the girls in her long-ago dance class were to receive a gift of deodorant and perfume splashes. “It made them feel special.”
That feeling of being seen can light a spark inside of a child. That spark can be the thing that helps them to reach for more. The kids themselves still have to do the work. But people who care can help give them a boost. As Nancy says, “What is the impact? “Tomorrow, does what you did even help one person? Did you create those sparks that will propel them into the future?”
Watch Nancy Mwirotsi for long, and you will see sparks fly.
Want to learn more about Pi515 or help with a donation? Visit their website at https://www.pursuitofinnovation.org/