FIRST ChampionshipWe are in St. Louis this week, immersed in the wildly costumed, metal mashing, techno rock drenched thrumming of the FIRST Championship, where over 12,000 youth from around the world have convened to compete in what is essentially the World Cup of geekiness – 120 lb robots flinging yoga balls across a 60 ft. field; smaller nimble robots grappling blocks and suspending themselves above the playing field, and LEGO robots caroming around a tabletop field racing to complete as many autonomous challenges as possible in 2 1/2 minutes.

Barry and watts up

FIRST Alumni and volunteer, Barry Bohnsack, with team Watts Up

It is loud. It is crowded. It is a sensory overload of sound, sight and movement. For volunteers and staff like us, it is exhausting.

And it is also and without a doubt, the Fountain of Youth.

A week spent among this energetic crowd of smart and warm-hearted young people is a week of promise and hope for the future, a tonic against the premature aging of jaded pessimism. Being with all these great students, driven by the simple ethic of “Gracious Professionalism“, with an enormous mentor base of adult supporters who believe in them, and in the power of empowered youth – is absolutely rejuvenating!

with woody

Dr. Woody Flowers, the father of Gracious Professionalism.

Steve and I have been involved in FIRST robotics for nearly 10 years now, starting with our son’s involvement in FIRST LEGO League when he was 12. We had never seen anything like it: kids screaming with excitement as their robots, designed out of LEGOs, made pre-programmed runs across a table top field studded with a variety of challenges involving moving or triggering certain game elements in two and a half minute matches. There were crazy team names, wild costumes, rock music and energetic line dancing.

That’s what the kids loved. We loved that it was a character based STEM education program, emphasizing “Gracious Professionalism”, a paradigm that calls for achievement not just through academic and technical ability, but through kindness and compassion, as well. What a brilliant idea – to be successful AND kind.

It wasn’t long before we were coaching and mentoring, too. And while our son has long since graduated, after 8 years of involvement in FIRST, Steve and I are still here, in the midst of this celebratory crowd of the green haired, and tie dyed, the helmeted and masked, the monkey suited and tiara crowned, who are wielding hand tools and drills, crowding in on computer screens to tweak programming, and talking earnestly with adults who care about what they have to say. Our son, like many other youth who have graduated out of the FIRST program, is a FIRST mentor, drawn back into the caring community of FIRST that not only graduates academic and workforce capable young people, but nice and good people who care about each other and their world.

It is that culture of intelligent goodness, this intergenerational community of confidence and encouragement, that makes FIRST such an elixir of optimism, and such a joy in which to participate and belong. I wish for all the children at the FIRST Championship here in St. Louis, and the more than 300,000 worldwide across 80 countries who are also part of FIRST, a lifetime of that joy and promise, and the courage, character and grace to be successful and kind, all the days of their lives.