Bellevue teen launches robotics-based nonprofit to help youth in the Philippines

In the Philippines, there is a dish called pagpag.

In the Philippines, there is a dish called pagpag.

Preparation includes scavenging through trash to find edible scraps and cooking them until they are appetizing. And while the dish is often prepared in the home, it is also sometimes served in restaurants.

Gabriel Zook first learned about pagpag when his father went to the Philippines a few years ago to do some charity work. Zook said for him, the dish just highlighted the high rate of poverty in the country.

“Obviously, there’s something wrong with that,” he said.

After learning how some Filipino people have this mindset that there is no way for them to get out of their current situation — that they must eat garbage — Zook and his friend Anne Lee decided to do something about it.

Zook, a freshman at Big Brains Education in Bellevue, and Lee, a junior from Tesla STEM High School near Redmond, are members of the VEX IQ robotics team, Wasabi, and after seeing photos and blog posts from a fellow teammate who brought robotics kits to the Philippines to share with the children there, they figured out what they would do.

The two founded Project Launchpad, a nonprofit focused on bringing robotics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities to children in Manila, the capitol city of the Philippines.

Lee said there are two components to the organization. The first is an adopt-a-team program in which robotics teams in the United States sponsor a Filipino team. The sponsorship means the American teams mentoring and sharing their knowledge with their Filipino counterparts and sometimes offering financial support. The second component to Project Launchpad is a scholarship program that will provide Filipino students the opportunity to go to school in the United States, specifically at Big Brains, which was started by Zook’s father.

The sponsorship program is focused on younger teams at the elementary and middle school level, while the scholarship program is focused on high school students. Zook and Lee said with the latter, Project Launchpad will also help students with college applications.

For Zook and Lee, their goal is to show Filipino youth what they can achieve and that there is a way out of poverty.

They started Project Launchpad about a year ago and since then, they have been working to get their adopt-a-team league started.

Zook said they have connected with American teams who are interested in the sponsorship program and will contact them again once the infrastructure in the Philippines — which includes forming teams and bringing over robotics parts — is put into place.

In the meantime, Lee said their team has communicated with some of the youth involved overseas through Skype.

The scholarship program is also underway.

Lee said they potentially have their first recipient, a 17-year-old girl who is a sophomore in high school. Lee explained that in the Philippines, schools are more mixed when it comes to grades and ages, which is why this young woman is older than the average American sophomore.

Project Launchpad has raised money for its programs by running robotics summer camps and Lee said they plan to mentor other local VEX IQ teams and place the funds used to pay for those programs toward the nonprofit’s causes.

And while the main benefactors of Project Launchpad are the Filipino youth, both Zook and Lee said they benefited, as well.

Lee said it has been cool to speak with the youth in the Philippines and for her, it has helped her realize how privileged and lucky she has been in her life to live where she does. She said while she may complain about school from time to time, the teens she speaks to in the Philippines would be so happy for just the opportunity to go to school.

Zook added that for the most part, when they speak with their counterparts, they find they are not that different, but then the other teenagers will mention things such as having to go to work. When that happens, Zook said it reminds them of the conditions these teens live in and it is very humbling.

For more information on how to help with Project Launchpad’s cause, call 425- 653-1222 or email

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