I had planned to sleep in Sunday morning. It was not a pleasant surprise when my mother, usually not one to disturb her slumbering kids, rushed up to my room at 8 AM and shook me until I stirred. It was an even less pleasant surprise when I learned why I was being awoken so early. Team 2823’s trailer had been stolen.
For those not in the know, the trailer is a fixture of any robotics team. It is a universal symbol of FRC; go to any robotics competition and you’ll see a line of trailers, with varying levels of fanciness and customization, in the parking lot. When I see that line of trailers, I know I’m among kindred spirits. We have all built robots that are too large to store in someone’s trunk, and we all have toolboxes and batteries and joysticks with which to operate that robot, and we all need a large, convenient space to store that stuff in. Most importantly, we all keep a lot of that stuff in the trailer even when we’re not at a competition.
We were lucky that our robot, which we’ve been toiling over for six weeks, wasn’t in the trailer that night. It had been taken into our head coach’s house because of a loose screw. The trailer remained parked outside of his house, where it is usually found, until around 5 AM. When word got out, in a panic, we scrambled to find the vehicle registration, file a police report, and spread the word through every channel we could. I created a GiveMN page (which is still up, btw) that spread at an unexpectedly fast rate through the tubes and accumulated a donation total in the quadruple digits. Perhaps the most remarkable thing: our main builders and drive team managed to squeeze the robot into our head coach’s car and we drove to the practice competition we had scheduled for the day as though nothing had happened. Goes to show nothing can set a couple of dedicated teenagers back.
At some point, the local media got word that the trailer had been stolen. It started with a call from the Pioneer Press, and before long, local TV stations began to take interest in us. Suddenly, our missing trailer was a capital-S Story, and it seemed like everyone in the Metro area knew about our trailer. We had newscasters following us around at this practice competition, interviewing students and mentors, while fellow teams offered us spare parts and batteries and friends donated money while promising to look for our trailer. It was scary, at first, to lose something so important to us (and to any robotics team), but the outpouring of support and the importance with which our situation was being treated eased our worries.
We received word that a trailer that resembled ours had been spotted on a rapid response vehicle around noon. Around that time, the team was breaking for lunch, having a markedly successful day with our robot whose framework is partially made out of a box of Cheetos. Afterwards, we fielded interviews and responded to press inquiries, feeling like reality stars as we enjoyed our lunch of Culver’s. We’d never been approached by news outlets in such great volumes, nor had we ever seen such an influx of donations. It was amazing to watch it all unfold.
When my mom and I finally made it to the impound lot, where we believed our trailer to be, a news van pulled in beside us. A very kind guy from KSTP trailed us as we made our way to the administrative office with a big bag of forms. The lady at the desk was a bit exasperated by our questions about the trailer – apparently, a news team had shown up earlier and furtively tried to get photos of the trailer through the window of the office, which is apparently frowned upon in the impound lot industry. We showed her our forms and proof of ownership and her tone softened. We were shown out a door that said “Do Not Enter”, and we penguin-stepped our way across the ice-slick lot to the trailer on the other side, which, sure enough, had the tell-tale HP sticker.
The trailer didn’t look to have taken much damage when we first opened it up. Was it messy? Sure, but it didn’t look like much was gone. After all, that shelf that we stock full of supplies was still there. We then poked around a bit and realized that the shelf was not, in fact, full of supplies, and about all we had was the bare shelf, some power cells, and a good amount of nails and screws. Most of our VEX products (and anything that could be sold for scrap) were gone. We were shocked at first, but as engineers, we can’t dwell on problems; all we can do is solve them. We brought back the trailer, hiked up our fundraising goal and moved on. Today, the trailer, though missing some batteries, electronics, and machinery, is parked in front of the school. Our fellow teams (as well as some of our sponsors) have offered to provide us with some of the resources we’ve lost, and as of writing, our fundraiser has exceeded its second goal by several hundreds. We couldn’t be more grateful that we have the money and support necessary to rebuild after experiencing such an abrupt and unexpected loss.
After we got the trailer back and did a couple of TV interviews for good measure, the story got picked up by the AP, and started showing up in an implausible number of non-Minnesotan publications. We had talked with Yoji Shimizu, a local legend in the Minnesotan robotics community, earlier that day, and he told us that plenty of teams have had trailers stolen before. Perhaps that explains why so many teams rushed to support us in our time of need, but it also begs the question of why people care about our story so much. Some answers that have been proposed: ours is a story with a pretty clear protagonist and antagonist, and the protagonist requires monetary support that people are willing to give; people hate to see kids have opportunities taken from them and love to see happy endings; stolen goods rarely make their way back and people often don’t have the means to rebuild what they’ve lost. That last one holds some weight – we were told, when we were hurriedly filing a police report at the crack of dawn, that lost trailers are rarely ever recovered. Well, ours is an unbelievable success story – not only was the robot kept safe, not only were we able to go to our practice competition, and not only did we actually get the trailer back, but we’ve received such a great volume of support that we probably would have been fine if none of those were true.
Thank you to everyone who donated to our fundraiser, to all the teams that reached out to us and offered their help, and to the news outlets that helped our story get unexpectedly huge. We’re so grateful that, even in such devastating situations, we can depend on the kindness and Gracious Professionalism of the FIRST Robotics Competition community.