Robert Osonma has always been interested in technology, but it was a high school computer science course that hooked him on coding. When he was diagnosed with cancer in June, two weeks before graduation, he turned that tech enthusiasm into work of the best kind.
The Osonma family is one bonded by community service. Cici Osonma, Robert’s mother, is the founder and executive director of Special Reach, a nonprofit organization that provides summer enrichment programs and monthly “Party Nights” for children with special needs.
“At Special Reach, we have two goals,” Osonma said. “On one hand, our activities provide a fun, safe environment in which children with special needs can enrich and enjoy themselves. We have a bit of everything: crafts for them to make, video games for them to play, sports for them to try, and a lot more. On the other, our programs give parents and guardians some well-deserved down-time. We reintroduce the idea of date night.”
While these activities provide much-needed comfort and stress relief for San Antonio’s special needs families, the when and where can prove an ordeal for them while balancing life’s responsibilities. That’s where Robert comes in.
“I knew families needed help with organization,” he said. “They needed a single place where they could find out about events and get in contact with Special Reach.”
When Robert received his diagnosis, his doctor informed him that he would be unable to attend college in the fall as planned, so he decided to create that place.
“My Mom suggested that I do something else with my time — something productive, something I cared about,” he said.
The result was the official Special Reach mobile application, which Robert developed from the ground up for iOS and Android platforms while undergoing chemotherapy. The app provides a hub for information about Special Reach’s events in an ultra-accessible format for any parent on the go.
“I started Special Reach in 2011 because I needed to become the solution I was looking for,” she said. “I responded to state budget cuts back then, but even today there are very few opportunities in San Antonio for children with special needs to have fun in a completely safe environment.”
With his work, Robert helps to make those opportunities more easily available.
App development is always a process. Before Robert could begin coding for iOS, Apple’s in-house operative system, he had to overcome a particular obstacle.
“When you develop for Apple devices, you have to use their main programming language, which is called Objective-C. When I started, I didn’t know that language,” he said. “So I learned it on my own.”
Learning a programming language from scratch is no easy task, but Robert progressed to proficiency and pushed the app to an alpha test, in which Robert’s family members and fellow Special Reach volunteers put an early version of the app through its paces.
“We changed a lot,” he recalled. “Everybody had great suggestions for how to improve the app.”
Once tweaks were made and programming glitches weeded out, Robert moved the Special Reach app to its Beta test, the last before the final version’s release. A wider selection of Special Reach volunteers and board members participated in the test, and, finally, cleared the app for public use. The official Special Reach app was released on July 23 for Apple devices and on Aug. 3 for Android devices.
As even development veterans expect in their own work, there were technical trouble spots along the way.
“Push notifications were tricky,” he said. “It takes really specific coding to make them work correctly. I got them right in the end, but it took some fixes.”
In addition, because Robert developed for two platforms in two programming languages, his work was essentially doubled.
“Android is another thing altogether,” his mother said.
Other difficulties were the result of Robert’s diagnosis. Even with a laptop on which to work, extended hospital visits and side effects of therapy sometimes caused delays in the app’s development. But in the end, Robert and his family see the project was more of a boon than a drain.
“I remember waking up in the night and checking on Robert, worried because he was awake,” Osonma remembered. “He was just coding away.”
He agreed, “It was a great distraction for when I wasn’t feeling well.”
The result of Robert’s hard work is an easy-to-use app that is both functional and stable. Via several simple navigation options, app users can view Special Reach’s schedule of events, pull up flyers, summer camp enrollment applications, and volunteer information, and get directions via Apple Maps to Crown of Life Lutheran Church, where Special Reach holds its events. More options link directly to the organization’s website and social media pages — one button even places a phone call to Special Reach automatically.
Most important, perhaps, the app can be set up to send automatic push notifications to a user’s phone detailing the time and location of coming events. In the busy life of a parent of a child with special needs, such reminders can mean the difference of a fun-filled evening and one lost among the shuffle.
It has been so far, so good with Special Reach’s dive into mobile outreach.
“We’ve had a great response,” she said.
Robert keeps a close watch for bugs, but has yet to find any. He reported that he plans to slowly update the app as new mobile platforms — such as the recently released iOS 8 — become available, and as the organization itself grows.
“We would like to hold events more frequently,” she added. “We only need the funding. I have many years of experience as a special education teacher. My daughter is diagnosed with autism. We give out as many scholarships as possible, and try to never turn a family away for financial reasons. This cause is very close to us.”
Robert will complete his final round of chemotherapy soon and prepare to start college next year. He has been accepted to the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at San Antonio, no doubt as a result of his impressive credentials. Despite the Osonma family’s extenuating circumstances, their college situation is quite typical. Robert wants to attend UT-Dallas for its exceptional engineering program, while his mother prefers he stay close to home.
“We’ll definitely have to talk about that,” his mother said.
Robert also hopes to offer his services to other nonprofits searching for similar mobile tools.
“I would love to help out,” he said.
In the meantime, he has completed his second development project, an addictive, basketball-themed mobile game called Shot Block Score, available now on iOS for $0.99, with an Android version on the way. Proceeds from purchases of the game will help Robert pursue his future endeavors. For him, as a battler of cancer and talented amateur developer, it’s all in the name.
“Shot Block Score is sort of a metaphor for life,” he said. “You shoot for a goal, but something blocks you. But what do you do, do you give up? No, you shoot again, and you score.”
Special Reach’s next “Party Night” will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10 at Crown of Life Lutheran Church, 19291 Stone Oak Parkway. Entry is $30 per participant, and siblings are welcome for $15. Children and teenagers are encouraged to come in costume.
*Featured/top image: The Osonma family in their home. From left to right: Jason Osonma, Robert Osonma, Lisa Osonma, and Cici Osonma. Photo by Samuel Jensen.