Philly tapping into ‘Minecraft’ to build up long-term funding for schools

 Lucas Gonzalez (left) and Omaury Negron play Minecraft. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Lucas Gonzalez (left) and Omaury Negron play Minecraft. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

This September, as many as 2,000 young gamers will flock to University of The Sciences in West Philadelphia for what’s being billed as the largest “kid-safe” “Minecraft” event in the world.

The newly introduced “Block by Block Party” will double as a fundraiser for regional nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth, which is launching a new initiative to bring technology into Philly schools.

If you don’t know about “Minecraft,” chances are your kids do. The uber-popular video game is somewhat akin to virtual Legos. Users move through a block world where they can build and destroy without limitation or objective.

“It brings out everybody’s creative side,” said Omaury Negron, 12, an avid “Minecraft” player. “It’s just one of the most creative games I’ve ever found.”

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Asked how long he’s been playing the game, Omaury responded: “It’s been a very, very long time. I’ve been around since the time that there were no slime blocks.”

(Your guess is as good as ours.)

PCCY hopes to turn the collective obsession over “Minecraft” into a steady funding stream. Those interested can enroll a child in the Sept. 16 event for $35 or pay to sponsor a child who can’t afford the entry fee.

The money raised will seed a new grant program where local schools can apply for up to $5,000 in high-tech help. The grants could go toward bringing new hardware into under-resourced schools or personnel to help schools make better use of the gadgets they have.

PCCY runs a similar program called the Picasso Project that supports arts education in city schools. Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director, said the new technology initiative may not be funded entirely by “Block to Block Party” entry fees, but the kickoff event will be a major prong of the fundraising effort.

“If this event grows in the scale we think it might, it could raise significant money for technology grants in the schools,” Cooper said.

With its obvious parallels to the worlds of engineering and coding, “Minecraft” has been cast as a potentially powerful teaching tool for the modern age and a generation-defining game. Time will tell if it meets the hype.

But its popularity is without question. And Zion Williams, 12, swears by its transformative powers.

“You can basically build anything and destroy it when you’re really mad,” Williams said. “And you feel much better.”

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