Texas Middle Schoolers Win National Contest for App Inspired by Their Blind Classmate

UPDATED 03/27/2014 at 02:00 PM EDT Originally published 03/25/2014 at 04:00 PM EDT

Verizon Innovative App Challenge Winners Share the Story of Hello Navi
Jacquelyne Garcia Torres, Caitlin Gonzales, Janessa Leija, Cassandra Baquero, Grecia Cano and Kayleen Gonzalez
Ronnie Zamora
The way the visually-impaired navigate new spaces could be transformed by a group of tweens in Los Fresnos, Texas.

Six girls from Resaca Middle School recently became one of eight teams to win the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. The team's concept for a mobile application called Hello Navi earned their school a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation.

Inspired by their blind classmate, Andres Salas, the middle schoolers thought up Hello Navi as a guide for the visually-impaired. The app is designed to measure a user's stride and combine this information with digital building blueprints, to then give verbal directions that can help users easily navigate unfamiliar spaces.



This winning team consists of Resaca students Kayleen Gonzalez (12), Grecia Cano (12), Cassandra Baquero (12), Jacquelyne Garcia Torres (12), Janessa Leija (11), Caitlin Gonzales (12) and their charismatic leader, science teacher Maggie Bolado.

"I jumped, then screamed and cried tears of joy. I got up too fast from my chair when they announced we won that I even hurt my leg a little. I couldn't stop smiling," Grecía told PEOPLE about her reaction to winning.

Right there beside the team cheering along during the announcement was the Hello Navi app's inspiration, Andres. The 12-year-old says he was already "super duper" excited to be the group's muse, and the win has turned all of them into a family.

Texas Middle Schoolers Win National Contest for App Inspired by Their Blind Classmate| Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories

Andres Salas

Ronnie Zamora

"I have adopted six new sisters, because they care for me and made this happen for me," he shared.

From Hello Navi's beginnings, Ms. Bolado has encouraged the girls to overlook what would be "cool" and focus on what would fill a greater need. When they learned it took Andres weeks of training to navigate a new space, the girls knew they wanted to create Hello Navi as a gift for him.

Working with Andres and his mobility specialist, these tech enthusiasts imagined themselves in the place of the visually impaired, walking through Resaca's halls blindfolded. By experiencing these challenges firsthand, the group pinpointed the features needed to make Hello Navi a success.

"This app has a stretch of tech tools we hope to incorporate. Using Google Indoor, we hope to upload our campus digital blueprints to create a 3D picture on the device. VoiceOver will allow Andres to speak into the phone and request to be directed to pre-recorded location points. The phone will speak back and guide him with directions and steps to get to his desired location," Cassandra said, describing Hello Navi's list of features.

Texas Middle Schoolers Win National Contest for App Inspired by Their Blind Classmate| Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories

Maggie Bolado

Ronnie Zamora

In April, the team begins building out and coding the actual app with help from an online course created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab Center for Mobile Learning. Once completed, the girls and Ms. Bolado will travel to Washington, D.C., and present Hello Navi at the 2014 National Technology Student Association Conference.

These middle schoolers are up for the challenge, and they're approaching the production phase with a mix of intrigue and excitement.

"Now I am open to all the possibilities with creation – this app has proven to me that my limit is my own imagination," Caitlin explained.

It's a response that makes Ms. Bolado proud. After taking a break from teaching, the 36-year-old is happy to be part of a school district willing to take chances – and a student body willing to put their trust in a new teacher.

Texas Middle Schoolers Win National Contest for App Inspired by Their Blind Classmate| Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories

The Hello Navi team accepts their $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation

Ronnie Zamora

"There are 180 instructional days. Each one is an opportunity to impact a student's life – to make them feel like they belong, like education fits, like you are there for them and because of them. If you keep your eyes wide open – you will become an education 'scout' and the rest comes easy. They will trust the rigor in the classroom; they will rise to your expectations and surpass them. Whatever cap you place on the class is where the limit will be," Ms. Bolado said of her teaching philosophy.

Teach kids that they are unstoppable, that they can change lives – and they'll become confident and empowered to succeed.


Texas Middle Schoolers Win National Contest for App Inspired by Their Blind Classmate| Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real People Stories

Ann Makosinski

Lloyd Bishop / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty



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