Haitian immigrant-filled robotics team earns contest berth with winning robot

Building robots at school wasn't something Margely Saint-Pierre could have ever imagined back home in Haiti, even before his high school was destroyed in last year's devastating earthquake.

But at the It Takes a Village Academy in East Flatbush, he's a member of a robotics team that's made up almost entirely of Haitian immigrants like him, and it feels like a family.

The students just won the chance to enter their robot in a prestigious competition in St. Louis, but they need to raise money to pay for the trip.

"It's like a dream come true," said Margely, 17, who saw 10 friends die in the aftermath of last year's earthquake before his parents sent him to stay with his uncle, a police officer who lives in Canarsie.

The junior with an 80 average is just one of a dozen students on the school's robotics team who emigrated from Haiti - half of them since the earthquake.

Two weeks ago, their robot took first place in a competition at the Javits Center by outperforming robots from 63 other schools from around the country, including big-name city schools such as Stuyvesant and Dalton.

They're one of just two public school teams from the city invited to the FIRST Tech Challenge next month, where 100 schools around the world will compete to see who can build the fastest and most precise robot.

The invitation is an honor for Margely and all the students on the It Takes a Village robotics team - but, more importantly, the kids have used their team to help each other adjust to their new lives in America.

"They're like brothers and sisters, sharing experiences," said Yvon Morin, a computer science teacher who serves as the team's coach, and who's also a Haitian immigrant.

The kids spend three afternoons a week working on their robot in the after-school program funded by the Brooklyn Community Foundation.

They sometimes speak Creole as they talk about their work, the lives they left behind and the new challenges they face in Brooklyn.

They're learning computer programming, math and physics as they work to perfect their creation, which can navigate a maze on its own and looks like an Erector Set crossed with a remote-control car.

Competing in next month's tournament would be a chance for the young immigrants to make a statement as well as network with college reps.

"We're going to show that we're Haitian and we've accomplished something really important," said team captain Christopher Leveille, 17, who emigrated to Canarsie from Port-au-Prince two years ago.

It will cost about $15,000 for the It Takes a Village team to attend the three-day St. Louis robotics competition, which starts on April 27.

To learn more or to make a donation, call (718) 260-3524 or (718) 629-2307, or visit www.bcfny.org.