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Coding for a cause: Hersey High School hosts coding marathon to support veterans’ mental health

Published April 26, 2023

It’s called a hackathon, but Help-a-thon is more like it. By any name, though, the HSHacks Hackathon hosted by John Hersey High School on April 15 and highlighted in the video here was a resounding success.

More than 80 students from 28 Chicago-area schools participated in the 12-hour event, which featured learning workshops and opportunities for students to give practical application to their coding and programming skills.

Hersey computer science teacher Bob Brown agreed to organize the event at the urging of Hersey juniors Miguel Aenlle and Alex Strugacz, who - he points out - ended up doing much of the work themselves. 

“The best (hackathons) we've been to have had a theme,” said Brown, adding that the theme eventually selected was building web-based projects for non-profits. And because the best hackathons also feature a partner, Hersey joined forces with Project Headspace & Timing, a veterans mental health advocacy organization.

Some teams worked on web apps requested by Project Headspace & Timing; some did web development work using their own ideas in the field of mental health. Either way, Brown said, students and the non-profit alike derived benefits. Students tailored their work to each non-profit’s requests, which ranged from creating web pages listing upcoming events to pages designed to receive donations and provide receipts.

“It was fantastic, 12 hours of kids working together. It was so cool to watch the collaborative effort,” said Brown, who, in his 25th year at Hersey, teaches computer science, mobile app development, Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A.

Brown says the event was largely student-led, particularly through the efforts of Miguel and Alex, who generated invitations to schools throughout Chicagoland, helped line up sponsors and acted as hosts and troubleshooters throughout the day.

In addition to helping non-profits, Alex says he was motivated by the value of providing a shared experience. “I really wanted to run this event,” he said, “because I know what it’s like to have that inkling of interest in computer science, but you really need that push to deepen your interest in the field.”

That’s an outcome that Miguel said was achieved in a substantial way. “We all get together,” he observed, “and we get to push ourselves to new heights with our skills, right?”