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    Monday, July 15, 2024

    Fitch High School robotics team combines learning with giving back

    Clockwise from lower left, Shelly Egner and Josephine Bright, both of Groton, and Sherri Facas and Charlie Choi put together rice-soy fortified meals in bags Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, during the Rise Against Hunger meal packaging event hosted by the Robert E. Fitch High School robotics team, Aluminum Falcons, at the high school. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Groton — Dozens of members from the Fitch Senior High School robotics team gathered in the school’s foyer Saturday afternoon to package more than 27,000 meals to be sent to an international community in need — an effort the group says further connected them as a robotics “family” while also giving back to the wider community.

    “We are not just a robotics team. Being involved in the community, helping out the next person is the foundation of our mission,” said robotics team head coach Kevin Harrilal, as more than 50 volunteers stood at tables working on thousands of food packages in collaboration with the nonprofit Rise Against Hunger. “Building robots means nothing if you’re in a community and others are suffering. This is teaching our students the fundamental actions of being involved in your community and helping out others.”

    With a goal to put together at least 27,000 packages — or more than 4,000 pounds of food — by the end of the day, the team, known as the Aluminum Falcons, was well on its way by 2 p.m., having packaged more than 4,000 bags just an hour after starting. By 3:30 p.m., the team had hit 12,000 packs.

    Once packaged and sealed, the food is put into boxes to be shipped as part of a larger crate containing 300,000 meals to a country in need overseas. Last year, the team, in its first year working with Rise Against Hunger, packaged 21,680 meals — a number Harrilal said purposely coincides with the robotics team number 2168. The food was then shipped to a community in Malawi in southeastern Africa.

    So impressed with the difference it made, the robotics team decided to pursue the project again this year, raising thousands of dollars to buy the food needed for the project through corporate sponsorships and donations, Harrilal said. Saturday acted as an hourslong team gathering and building session to both package and box the food — a strategy Rise Against Hunger assistant manager Joe Gautier said makes his nonprofit’s mission “more tangible” for those involved.

    “It’s hard to get people to cold donate money, but this way we are not just asking for a donation,” Gautier said. “We are saying, 'If you donate, we will make you a part of the process. We will connect you and loop you in to what we are doing and you will actually be part of it beyond giving your money to come conceptual project.'”

    Rise Against Hunger is not the only volunteer service the robotics team takes part in. On Saturday, the Aluminum Falcons were also running a can drive to support the Groton Food Bank. The team donated more than 600 pounds of food to the Food Bank last year, Harrilal said, and this year hoped to break that number.

    The team also frequently takes part in creating care packages for troops overseas, Harrilal said, as well as advising and helping other robotics teams across the country through Skype sessions and during competitions. As of late, the team also has acted as an angel investor of sorts in an effort to support and launch a robotics team in Uganda.

    “We are never focused on winning. We try to help as many teams as possible,” Harrilal said. “Our mission is to be the best team we can be while also helping other teams.”

    First formed in 2007 with Fitch High School 2009 graduate Anthony Tadros and a teacher, Harrilal helped start the then three-person group while he was working as a robotics engineer at Electric Boat. He is now director of robotics and artificial intelligence for UBS in New York City. The robotics team since has grown into a more than 100-person team that now includes about 40 students, parent volunteers and more than 20 mentors, or professional scientists and engineers — many from Pfizer and Electric Boat — who work one-on-one with students throughout the year.

    “It all started from very humble beginnings, repeatedly getting knocked down. We didn’t win anything at all. Not a single thing. But ultimately this was teaching the kids how to get back up and be that much stronger,” Harrilal said, while explaining that the robotics teams have won several New England championships in recent years. “For them, when they graduate, we hope this will be ingrained in everything they do. ... Part of the career culture we are trying to teach them is you cannot be successful in your careers if you are trying to be a lone person. But if you can create a team that can move up, you and your team are going to move up together.”

    m.biekert@theday.com

    At each station, bags of rice-soy fortified meals in bags are placed in stacks of two on 18 squares marked on a mat and then the 36 bags are placed in a box for shipping Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, during the Rise Against Hunger meal-packaging event hosted by the Fitch High School robotics team, Aluminum Falcons, at the high school. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Members of the Fitch High School robotics team, Aluminum Falcons, package rice-soy fortified meals in bags Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, during a Rise Against Hunger event at the high school. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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