After Tweens’ Racist Encounter at Robotics Competition, the Internet Banded to Fund Their Team

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Disappointingly, we’ve seen too many incidents where a person of color’s achievements are chalked up to affirmative action or some other benefit that undercuts the actual work they’ve put in. This happened to Guillermo Pomarillo – a Latino teen accepted to Stanford University. At a checkup, his dentist – upon learning that the school accepted Pomarillo – said that because of affirmative action he took the place of people who were more worthy of the position. The school rejected the dentist’s daughter. The young student handled the situation with grace and penned an open letter dismissing the dentist’s petty and incorrect statements. This hateful notion reared its ugly head once again at a recent robotics competition in Indiana, but their community responded by investing in their future.

As a group of five Pleasant Run Elementary School students – Elijah Goodwin, 10; Angel Herrera-Sanchez, 9; Jose Verastegui, 10; Manuel Mendez, 9; and Devilyn Bolyard, 9 – competed, they could hear parents from other schools loudly voicing their racist opinions. The team’s made up of three Latino students and two African Americans.

“They were pointing at us and saying, ‘Oh my God, they are champions of the city all because they are Mexican,” said Diocelina Herrera, Angel’s mother, according to USA Today. “They are Mexican, and they are ruining our country.” The team – known as the Pleasant Run PantherBots – advanced to the Vex IQ State Championship. Afterward, parents and students from other Indianapolis-area schools waited in the parking lot to sour the 9- and 10-year-old’s experience. “Go back to Mexico!” some of the kids screamed.

As students from a Title I school, some may have undermined their talents. But the PantherBots went onto defeat more than 30 schools. After the incident, officials for the school district denounced the behavior. “The Plainfield Community School Corp. does not condone or tolerate language or behaviors that degrade others,” said Superintendent Scott Olinger of Plainfield Community Schools. “Had our organizing team been made aware of the alleged behaviors by unknown adults on Feb. 2, we would have taken immediate action.”

Photo: Courtesy of Pleasant Run Elementary School
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Despite their young ages, the PantherBots kept their heads high and didn’t let negativity affect their performance at the state championship. They once again came in first place and qualified for the Vex IQ World Championship, which takes place in Louisville in April. They’ll face tough competitors from around the world, and the students are once again unfazed.

“I was afraid they would let it get in their heads and wig them out,” Lisa Hopper, the team’s advisor said. “We sat down and talked to our kids, and obviously we let them share their feelings. They were on top of it already. They said: ‘We know they are mean. We know they were jealous. We’re not going to let it bother us.’ One of our guys said ‘to take stuff like that and let it make you stronger.’ I’m just so proud of them. The great thing about these give kids is they all ended up having strengths that elevated the team. They are dynamic individuals.”

As their loved ones and teachers took steps to care for them, their story went viral. And the community chipped into help them get to their next competition. The school started a GoFundMe page to raise $8,000 to pay for the world championship in Louisville, Kentucky. The crowdfunding campaign exceeded its goal by more than $4,000. And though the comments signal that people still want to donate their money for their cause, the school has closed the campaign. Instead, they are paying the generosity forward and encouraging others to donate money to other robotics teams.

“Funds above our target amount will be used for our robotics program next year. We ask that anyone still wanting to donate to please help support other incredible  teams who have earned a spot to the Vex World championship in Louisville, Kentucky,” the team wrote. “You can also donate to the TechPoint Foundation for Youth State Robotics Initiative. They have helped us and many other low-income robotic teams around our state!”