The CodeCrew team of Kela Jones, deputy executive director; Keenon Fox, finance manager; and Meka Egwuekwe (right), executive director, grew the company’s assets through the funding challenges of 2020. (Courtesy photo)

In the midst of permanent closures and crippling disruptions caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020, a few local entities thrived and flourished through the chaotic adjustments of restrictive mandates.

CodeCrew Memphis is among them.

Executive Director Meka Egwuekwe recalled the early days in March 2020 when everything just stopped.

There was a crash of all that was considered normal life.

Spring break for students in Shelby County Schools had just turned into the end of their school year.

“Our programs are in Shelby County Schools, and our kids were just coming out of spring break,” said Egwuekwe. “We were able to get us ZOOM-based classes for our kids. We realized that every child did not have access to computers at home.

“So, we sent packets to schools. There was a great partnership with Shelby County Schools, and we presented episodes on SCS television – plugged and unplugged coding lessons for kids.”

Egwuekwe called it “a whirlwind moment,” but a moment for which CodeCrew was prepared.

“Although we are a non-profit, we’re still a technology company,” Egwuekwe said. “And as a technology company, we felt we ought to be able to pivot and take the lead in virtual operations.

“Just a few weeks ago, we moved into this building. I look forward to expanding our reach in education among children in grades 1-12 and adult education.”

Egwuekwe’s ready smile and confident manner makes growing through a pandemic seem natural but, he said, the financial challenges to stay afloat were daunting.

“We had a couple of loans, a grant here and there to get us through,” he said.

Deputy Executive Director Kela Jones said the search and appeal for funding has never stopped.

“For a non-profit, there is never a time when fundraising stops,” said Jones.

“One of the happiest moments for me was telling Meka that we have received two large gifts. When I called to tell him, I told him to sit down first. That’s part of my job, to make sure this man doesn’t have to worry about where the money is going to come from.”

Jones said one thing the pandemic did for education in Shelby County was prove that the “one-size-fits-all” model does not necessarily work for everyone.

“I know of a student in the 38126 who was having issues with in-person instruction in the classroom. There were serious behavioral problems. But when classroom instruction went strictly virtual, he began to thrive in that format. We literally have to figure out what works best for each individual child.”

Although new challenges emerged from the pandemic, Egwuekwe never lost sight of his vision. Six years of pouring everything into his dream of exposing young people and adults to the computer coding profession fueled his resolve to expand and build on what has already been accomplished.

“From the beginning of CodeCrew, we have recognized that not every child or every adult will become a software engineer or computer scientist,” said Egwuekwe.

“But we recognize the great value to every child and every adult having exposure and access to computational thinking and the benefits of that approach to solving problems.”

Egwuekwe added, “Too many black and brown kids, too many girls assume it’s for white and Asian males. And they’ve not even had the opportunity to try to see whether or not this is something they can do.

“And so, for us, just even pulling back the covers for them in terms of them having some kind of introduction to see it’s not rocket science, is also a success, even if they choose to do something else.”

Gabriella Gilliom, 14, now a freshman at Craigmont High School, fell in love with coding when she first started with CodeCrew in the third grade.

Gabriella Gilliom, who has been with Code Crew for six years, at a Black Girl Code event at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. (Courtesy photo)

“I was 8 years old when I started,” said Gilliom. “And I really loved it. I can be creative in every way.  It was at Lester Community Center, ALSAC/St. Jude Black Girls CODE. I have been coding for six years.”

Coding for Gilliom has inspired big dreams and broadened her plans for pursuing higher education.

“After graduation, I hope to be an intern at CodeCrew, while I’m going to college,” said Gilliom. “The first two years, I want to attend the University of Memphis. The last two years, I want to attend school in Japan as an exchange student. Because of CodeCrew, I want this to be my career.”

CodeCrew teaching assistant Houston Moses, 22, has loved computers from a very young age.

Houston Moses (Courtesy photo)

Moses graduated high school in 2017 and took a break. He got connected with CodeCrew and began making important moves that will take him on the road to becoming a successful software engineering.

“I completed a six-month web developer boot camp at the University of Washington in Seattle,” said Moses. “Presently, I am attending Northwest Community College in Southaven…”

Moses said CodeCrew gave him an important foundation to build a career in software engineering.

CodeCrew, in addition to working with students, has offered intensive instructional programs for adults looking to change their lives with a career in computer coding.

According to Indeed.com, the national average salary for a computer coder starting out is about $48,000. Adults who have completed the CodeCrew program have started out as high as $75,000-$80,000, Egwuekwe said.