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Kids From Mary’s Place Homeless Shelters Tour Amazon To Learn About Science And Tech Jobs

Ashley Gross
Kids from Mary's Place shelters examine the contents of the stem of a carnivorous plant from a garden on one of Amazon's terraces

Since last year, Amazon has provided the nonprofit group Mary’s Place with space for about 65 homeless families to sleep. Now, the company is trying to inspire kids from Mary’s Place shelters to choose careers in science or technology.

On Monday, a couple dozen kids from Mary’s Place shelters toured new Amazon office towers in downtown Seattle and visited the company’s fulfillment center in Kent.

Amazon executives gave quick presentations on topics like  video game design and cloud computing, but the focus wasn’t all about computer programming.

Amazon program manager Mike Fong, who works in the company’s horticulture division, showed the kids a garden full of carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps, on one of the company’s terraces.  

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Mike Fong (right) is a program manager in horticulture for Amazon

“Alright, so if we dissect this, what do you guys think we’ll find in here?” Fong said. “Lots of flies, probably, right? Probably also beetles, bees, a little bit of everything.”

Fong sliced open the stem of one of the plants. Some kids shied away, but two intrepid boys named Arnold and Mie examined the bug carcasses inside.

“I see the fly’s eyes, their wings and the legs,” Arnold said. “Look at their eyes! They’re so shiny.”

“Why does this plant digest flies?” Mie wanted to know.

Fong explained that the boggy soil the plants live in doesn’t contain enough nutrients, so the plants trap and digest insects to fuel their growth.

This tour is part of a three-week program Amazon is running this year to bring in different groups of kids.

The company calls it the “A to Z Experience.” It’s designed to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and demystify what goes on in all the shiny new office buildings Amazon has been adding in downtown Seattle.

During one part of the day, kids tried their hand at brainstorming inventions for Amazon’s next big thing.

Some ideas proposed by the kids from Mary’s Place: Battery-powered basketball shoes, bracelets that shoot webs Spiderman-style to help you clean up your room and a TV that can detect if Grandma falls down and then call 911.

A cynic might say Amazon is simply trying to indoctrinate the next generation of online shoppers. But Amazon spokeswoman Allison Flicker said that’s not the aim.  

“The purpose of this camp is to inspire and empower kids in our neighborhoods, in our communities to someday pursue STEM careers,” Flicker said.

Imani, 13, has been staying at the Mary’s Place shelter on Amazon’s campus, but this was her first visit to one of the company’s office buildings. She said it’s important that Amazon is doing this. 

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Kids from Mary's Place, including 13-year-old Imani (left), presented their idea for a TV with a built-in sensor that could detect if a grandparent has an accident and then call 911.

“In Mary’s Place, the main reason you get in there is because of poverty and domestic violence and bad things like that and because of that, kids get traumatized," she said. "And that’s all they think about, and it’s really hard for them to think about anything else, especially if the situation is not getting better, but experiences like this it kind of takes their mind off it, which I think is really cool,” she said.

Imani said the visit reinforced the importance of math and science. Those are two subjects she knows she’ll have to study, since she wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.