A unique education for a unique kid

Courtesy of Christopher Rueth

Christopher Rueth spent several weeks at Jhamtse Gatsal, a rural area in northeast India that is a two-day jeep ride from the nearest airport and decent hospital. During his last visit, he brought 20 tablet computers for eighth-grade students at an orphanage school there.

How’s this for a post-high school plan:

Find someone to pay you $100,000 over two years to go educate yourself in whatever way you see fit, to learn how to become a business entrepreneur with an eye on improving the world.

That’s the Chris Rueth plan. Really. There are a few catches – a very surprisingly few. Not a bad gig, eh? Really good for a kid who basically got kicked out of high school. More about that later.

Rueth, now 18, has decided to bring technology for basic needs and education to Third World communities. He has created a nonprofit called Community Kit. When not trekking to far-off places such as India to do this, he sometimes hangs out with his mother, Terra Brooke of Durango.

Rueth and I hooked up late last month for a private interview at Brooke’s Durango home. OK, it wasn’t really all that private. A two-man film crew with cameras in our faces and microphone booms dangling inches above our heads joined us. The crew from Dogpatch Films, a San Francisco-based film-production company, is cataloguing Rueth’s adventures for the Thiel Foundation.

Perhaps the name Peter Thiel rings a bell? He’s the man who co-founded PayPal, the oft-used Internet payment system. Now, at age 45, Thiel has a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to Forbes Inc.

Two years ago, this successful entrepreneur started the Thiel Foundation Fellowship. The plan was to find 20 people younger than 20 who have great ideas, are willing to skip or delay college, and give them a hundred grand each to help them develop those forward-thinking ideas and start changing the world.

These youngsters are an elite group. They’re the square pegs society wants to fit into a round hole.

“He’s unique,” says Brooke, his mother, a former teacher.

“You’re different in a good way,” she assures him, though he doesn’t seem like one who needs reassuring. Then again to me: “Chris is a self-directed kid.”

Rueth was born and raised in San Diego. His mother looked for alternative educational paths, and found one in the Waldorf method. Students are encouraged to experience subjects rather than just learning about them in a book. He thrived in a less-structured environment.

“I think that played a big part in me always looking for ways to be different,” he says.

Rueth attended a public high school, mostly because it was within walking distance of his house. He made friends, but he found the students – and the administrators – too closed-minded. He particularly didn’t like that the school blocked students from such websites as YouTube, Facebook and Wikipedia. So Rueth did a little spying on the censors.

“I went into their system and poked around,” he says.

Then he did something tech whizzes call DDoS’ing, a distributed denial-of-service attack.

“I sent a flood of packets at the router that was serving the censorship software and I crashed it,” he says, “which means I broke the whole Internet (at the school) for like three days.”

When Rueth was nabbed as the culprit, “It was a really big deal.” A detective, the sheriff, a deputy, in all about eight people, came to the school to bust the kid who’d collapsed their system.

“They said I could never use technology at the school if I came back again, so it’s like, how am I going to go to school there?”

He picked up his GED diploma from a local community college – a year ahead of his classmates.

About that time, his grandparents took him to a Libertopia conference – a meeting about ideas on creating a better future – where Peter Thiel spoke and mentioned the fellowship.

Rueth applied, saying the world’s biggest problem was suppressive governments, particularly China. Soon he found himself in a hallway with 40 other kids waiting to give two-minute presentations and earn one of 20 fellowships.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Rueth says.

At age 16, he was easily the youngest to earn a fellowship. The fellows have mentors to help them along, but little oversight. They’re subject to four reviews per year and supply monthly updates on their doings.

“Apart from that you’re completely independent to do what you want with that money,” Rueth says.

His first focus was to bring high-tech in the form of a Wi-Fi hotspot to an orphanage school in Jhamtse Gatsal, a village in northeast India tucked up against the Himalayas.

But Rueth’s plan evolved during his first visit there.

“If people don’t have basic necessities, they can’t really learn because they’re busy providing these basic necessities so they can survive.”

So he tweaked his mission. He created the “community kit,” a method of helping communities purify water, generate power and also provide a hotspot.

For example, the kit includes an ultraviolet light, powered by solar, that purifies water. It costs $200 and requires minimal maintenance. The Jhamtse Gatsal community had been paying $3,200 a year for firewood just to boil water.

Rueth’s fellowship ends in September, but he plans to return to India and keep the nonprofit going, wherever it’s needed. If he can provide people with access to information, he believes, it will allow them to think and act for themselves.

“That’s going to change all these ways we have of governing society a lot more effectively than simply complaining about it on the Internet,” he says.

And he has no regrets about bypassing college for the Thiel fellowship. “I think it’s been exponentially greater than what I could have gained from college.”

And infinitely cheaper.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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