Des Moines activist creates program for refugee children to learn to code

Eight years ago on a cold winter morning, Nancy Mwirotsi walked into a local hospital to assist with an interpretation and discovered a woman with two sons, neither of whom were wearing a jacket. So Mwirotsi took action. She drove to Walmart and bought each of them one. As it turned out, the woman and

Nancy Mwirotsi was inspired to make a difference for refugee families living in Iowa, so she created a free program that teaches middle and high schoolers how to code. 

Eight years ago on a cold winter morning, Nancy Mwirotsi walked into a local hospital to assist with an interpretation and discovered a woman with two sons, neither of whom were wearing a jacket.

So Mwirotsi took action. She drove to Walmart and bought each of them one.

As it turned out, the woman and her family were refugees who had been in the United States less than three months.

“She had to find a job to pay back her ticket fare, she couldn’t speak or write any English, and she was being kicked out of her place,” Mwirotsi said. “So I set out to help her find a job, and since then, I’ve focused on helping refugee families relocate better.”

Mwirotsi started collecting anything that might help ease a family’s transition—from clothes and towels to toiletries and furniture—but quickly realized the children of these families needed something more.

The majority of the African children she knew were typically grouped together with African-American children, which Mwirotsi says created a big problem.

“They’re not the same thing, and each group has different issues,” she said. “For Africans, English is usually a second language, they are from below-poverty homes with high illiteracy rates and there are usually no high school or college graduates within the home.

“The result is that many African kids don’t feel comfortable or fit in at school or after-school programs.”

Without direction or a sense of belonging, and because of an often complex set of issues at home, Mwirotsi noticed many refugee children were getting into trouble.

So in 2010, she called Freedom for Youth Ministries in Des Moines and asked if she could use their space to start an African dance class for the kids on Saturdays. More than 20 showed up to the first classes and Freedom for Youth adopted it as part of its weekly programming. Mwirotsi saw swift improvements in attitude and behavior from kids who attended, which naturally made her want to do even more.

Then she met Pastor John Kline of Zion Lutheran Church and learned that his church was providing ESL [English as a second language] classes, food and clothing to hundreds of refugee kids and their families across Iowa. Each Wednesday evening, the church hosted 200-300 children, offering dinner and activities. Seeing what other members of the community were doing, Mwirotsi—who has always been passionate about education and technology—thought long and hard about how else she could help.

“I wanted to help intelligent kids who happened to be refugees by providing opportunities and keeping them in school,” she said. “I wanted to empower them and give them knowledge so that they could create change around them. To me, the model for these kids was: ‘Okay, you came from Africa and a refugee camp. Your opportunities here are a blessing. How can you take advantage of them?’”

Her solution for empowerment? Coding.

Mwirotsi was already helping her young daughter use Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational website, for coding lessons. She had friends and colleagues focused on technology use in Kenya, and she had recently been inspired by a TEDxVienna talk about SMS-based solutions for smartphones in Africa.

Additionally, she knew that some of the best-paying careers were in the STEM fields. Mwirotsi realized that learning coding skills now could open doors for the kids she worked with down the road.

The initial problem

At first, Mwirotsi had no funding to get a coding class or program like the one she envisioned off the ground. True to her nature, she didn’t let that stop her.

“When I have passion for something, I figure out a way to do it,” she said.

Late last year, Mwirotsi reached out to local colleges and universities to see if any of them could help. She put together a proposal for the program she had decided to call “Pi 515: Pursuit of Innovation“—515 representing the area code of Des Moines, the home base of many of the refugees she knows—and circulated it to everyone she knew.

Initially, Mwirotsi aimed to reach 20 middle and high school refugee students. The goal was to support them as they learned to write computer code for an app or website that would help alleviate hunger or address some unmet community need. In addition, the program also would provide adult mentoring and college prep.

A week before Pi 515‘s first class in early April, Mwirotsi panicked.

“We didn’t have a teacher yet,” she explained. “We couldn’t pay for one either. I knew the important thing was to get started, though, and we could just focus on the basics at the beginning.”

So Mwirotsi continued preparing for the class. Then during a conversation with Matthew Brown—a fellow church-goer at Zion—she happened to mention the new program was in need of a volunteer teacher. Much to Mwirotsi’s surprise, Brown responded that he taught computer science and immediately offered to instruct the class for free.

Releasing the burdens of the past, looking to the future

Students learn to code through Pi 515, a program for refugee children living in Des Moines. 

So far, 35 students are enrolled in Pi 515, but Mwirotsi continues to receive calls from additional parents wanting to sign their kids up.

The classes—offered twice a month on Saturday mornings—focus on coding for the first half then bring in community mentors and leaders to speak about relevant topics, such as how to dress for work and what goes into starting a business, for the second half. Mwirotsi eventually hopes to offer classes more frequently and to expand lessons to include even more areas like computer repair.

Currently the biggest challenge she faces is cost. As a free program, Pi 515 incurs a lot of hidden expenses that must somehow be covered.

“Transportation is coming out of my own pocket, but we can’t afford not to do it…We have to step up,” Mwirotsi said. She also makes sure each child gets something to eat during their classes. “So often, they come and they haven’t had breakfast and maybe they won’t get lunch, and then are they focused? No. So I figure out a way to provide something.”

She wanted to hold classes at Creative Visions in Des Moines, but the space wasn’t big enough and there weren’t enough computers. Right now, classes are held at different locations around the city. But for the program to grow to Mwirotsi’s dream size of about 100 students, it’ll need a new home base.

She’s still working to secure partnerships with and support from Des Moines University, Grandview University and Des Moines Public Schools. And going forward, Mwirotsi hopes more local mentors and instructors will step up to share their knowledge with her classes.

In the meantime, Mwirotsi gives all she can to the kids of Pi 515, utilizing every ounce of support she can gather here in Iowa. She recently brought six high school students—including two brothers who want to be engineers and a young woman interested in becoming a doctor—to the Iowa Youth Institute at the World Food Prize, where they learned how to make biodiesel and dissect corn as well as watched student presentations and spoke with professors about scholarships.

One of the students, a 10th-grader named Olive, has already finished all her high school required math courses as well as two advanced math classes. Her plan was to simply to finish high school, but after attending the Institute, she felt inspired to take pre-calculus and consider applying to colleges.

“I’m just trying to get them to dream bigger and be inspired to contribute to their world,” Mwirotsi said. “They have to release the burdens of the past and look to the future.”

For more information about how to support Pi 515, contact Nancy Mwirotsi.


Credits: Photos courtesy of Nancy Mwirotsi. 


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