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Field Notes

Joy of bots: Kids "let the world in" and help others

Joy of bots: Kids "let the world in" and help others
Winterhaven student with his bot.
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It’s hard to argue with Sharon Hatrak when she starts to talk about the sense of satisfaction when you see them smile.

“When you see the joy on the faces of kids when they have finished something, even when they are working on something,” she says. “You immediately know how important the arts can be.”

Hatrak’s the arts coordinator at Winterhaven Middle School in Southeast Portland.

She was hired by the Parent Teacher Association four years ago because everyone saw the need for a dedicated arts program. She had a child in the school. She now has another there.

“The school, like so many, didn’t have the money to make that happen,” she says. “I knew I could help out.”

Hatrak’s a family therapist by training – she still maintains her practice – but now spends most of her time with students.

“I use play therapy and art therapy in my practice and it’s so important to let kids know that they can express themselves,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to see when they realize that in these cases, there is no right and wrong.

“I love to be able to help them see things differently, think creatively, put a different spin on stuff.”

Someone recently suggested to her that she reach out to Gary Hirsch, the local artist whose artistic “bots” have helped turn him into a national figure, and see if he would talk to her students.

Hirsch makes his bots – illustrations of robots on the backs of dominoes – and sends them off into the world to hopefully make people happy. He’s made thousands of them that he’s lumped into more than two dozen categories – from courage to love.

There are bravery bots that he suggests will use their “robot powers to give you a little bit of courage to face the things that feel uncertain and scary.”

There are bots in Portland, in New York, in Austin and, notably, in places like Randall’s Children’s Hospital where they bring courage and hope.

“What he does,” says Hatrak. “That’s exactly the message I want kids to learn. I want them to know that they can express themselves and, by doing so, make a difference.

“So, not knowing how he would react, I picked up the phone and called him.”

Not only did Hirsch agree to talk to her students, he agreed to spend the better part of two days with them – this past Thursday and Friday. He told them about why he makes bots, he took them through the process of making them and helped them figure out what they wanted to do with theirs once they were made.

“Listening to them talk and plan their bots was inspiring,” says Hatrak. “They were discussing their personal contacts in the world, and how they could help each other get bots to target audiences.”

One girl wanted to help patients with breast cancer. 

“I asked her what kind of bot might help a person with this challenge,” Hatrak says. 

The possibilities started flying ... hope, strength, care, love.

The discussion turned to deployment, the term Hirsch prefers for sending his bots into the world.

“One kid said I know an oncologist, I could give it to them to give to a patient,” Hatrak says. “Another kid said ‘my mom works at a hospital, she could help find someone to give the bot to.'" 

The kids turned out hundreds of bots. Many of them were “brave bots” to be sent to kids in the hospital and to be included in care packages going to the troops.

“Clearly, these kids were inspired by and heard Gary's message - steal his idea - make bots and help others,” says Hatrak. “Gary, through all of this, was great with the kids, giving them art tips, and inspiring them to think bigger.

“The message being that their art and passions can make a positive difference in the world.”

Even though Friday was the last day of school before spring break, kids stayed late to work on their bots.

“Such a testament for why expressive arts are so important in our schools,” Hatrak says. “The more they experiment, the more they express themselves, the more they realize that it’s okay to open themselves up to the world.

“They let the world in and, at the same time, let the world see them.”

Hirsch refers to his bots as “a tiny, hand-painted robot army programmed to bring you joy!”

It’s time to enlist.

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