Iraq vet creates free Web-development program

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SYLVESTER MOBLEY was short a volunteer for his Coded by Kids class on Saturday when a couple of mini-reinforcements walked in.

"You guys can help me set everyone up," Mobley told 10-year-old twins Munir and Mekhi Jones. Munir is older by two minutes; I promised I would mention that.

Mobley, and another volunteer who came later, had it handled, but the look on the twins' beaming faces summed up what's behind this nonprofit program - and teaching city kids how to build websites is just part of it.

When you ask Mobley about Coded by Kids, there's the elevator pitch: a program that provides inner-city kids and, most recently, adults with a free tech-education program.

But to understand why this two-year venture matters, and why schools and organizations should be lining up to partner with him, it helps to know a little about Mobley, a 36-year-old married father of three and the only person I've ever met who has served in three branches of the military.

After four years in the Marines straight out of high school, Mobley joined the Air Force, where he got into a computer-tech field. In the Army National Guard, which he joined later, he earned a degree in finance from Temple University. He also served a tour of duty in Iraq.

When he returned, he didn't just want a job; he wanted to have an impact.

He thought of his own struggles in school: He graduated but was a terrible student - one who excelled in math but still fell between the cracks. He thought about his friend, a chess whiz who joined the military with him but who ended up in prison for armed robbery.

"He could have done so much more, but ended up essentially wasting his life," Mobley said. "How many more kids have the ability and talent to do more but slip through the cracks?"

Mobley needed only to look around his own city to answer that. He had an idea, spurred by his own experience with how few people of color there are in technology: What if he used the technological skills he learned in the military to teach kids who lacked the computer literacy expected in the most entry-level jobs?

More than 40 percent of Philly residents don't have Internet access at home.

Coded by Kids started with Mobley and one kid at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in Southwest Center City, where the weekly classes are still held. The recreation director asked Mobley if he was sure he wanted to continue. He did. The first year, Mobley ran 39 classes. The second, close to 200. The classes are also taught at two schools, with three more potentially signing up soon. Mobley still has a day job, but soon he hopes to run the program full time. The program recently received a $20,000 grant from StartUp PHL.

The program's success so far is testament to how important these skills are to kids in Philly.

But it's also testament to something else: the importance of showing kids how much bigger the world is than their neighborhood, how many more opportunities there are once they realize that.

I know, people say this a lot. I say this a lot - because I'm a product of that thinking and because I know it to be true.

The proof is in Mobley, a typical Philly kid who went out in the world, succeeded and came back determined to share what he learned.

It's in the adorable Jones twins, creators of more websites than they can list. And they listed a lot.

It's in 17-year-old Da'Jour Christophe - another Coded by Kids student who is working with a startup and headed to college. "Sylvester encouraged me not to give up," he said.

And it's in a young woman with some admittedly odd viewing tastes.

"I watched one of our 10-year-old girls watching a Web series about project management and I laughed," Mobley said. "I'm a project manager and I wouldn't want to watch that. But now that she understands what it means, she says she wants to be one."

"A lot of times I tell volunteers that we are literally changing the world," he said. "I know that seems dramatic, but every time we have an impact on one of these kids, they go on to have an impact on others. There is a ripple effect, I really believe that."

So do I.



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