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LOCAL IMPACT

How a young inventor helped his brother make a new town feel like home

Self-taught app creator tackles his passion project: working with his brother to create a more inclusive world.

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LOCAL IMPACT

How a young inventor helped his brother make a new town feel like home

Self-taught app creator tackles his passion project: working with his brother to create a more inclusive world.

BY JESSE MINTZ

The Ciocca family’s lives were uprooted three years ago when they moved from New Jersey to Bonita Springs, Florida. Just as any parent would, John and Maria Ciocca worried about moving their boys—Johnny and Christian—to a new school.

For older brother Christian, who has Down syndrome, the move from Voorhees, N.J. meant he’d leave behind the social circle that took him a lifetime to build and the community support he had come to rely on.

After a few months in Bonita Springs, Johnny noticed that his brother (and best friend) was struggling to make those same friendships and connections in their new community. He wanted to help.

The duo grew up creating together. As kids it was Lego and K’Nex; now it would be lines of code and a mobile app. “I figured I’d create a social network for people with disabilities, so Christian can connect with people nearby and friends back in Jersey,” says Johnny of his 19-year-old brother.

During late nights in front of his computer, Johnny laid the foundations for youBelong, an app specifically for people with disabilities and their loved ones. Drawing on input from Christian and lessons from other social media sites, the app allows users to share videos and photos, post status updates, search for friends and chat—all in a safe space that encourages community building for people who sometimes find it challenging to connect with others.

Left: A baseball glove. Center: Christian playing baseball. Right: Johnny, Christian and a friend.
Left: A baseball glove. Center: Christian playing baseball. Right: Johnny, Christian and a friend.

For Christian, the platform has given him an outlet to share his new life with friends back home while finding people to connect with in his new community.

Christian’s favorite thing to do on the app is recognizable teenage behavior: post selfies. “I took one on the flight here,” he says excitedly from backstage at WE Day California, his phone in hand while he scrolls through his youBelong feed. “Everywhere I go, I’m taking selfies, messaging friends, posting videos.”

youBelong is Johnny’s most ambitious project yet. He started coding in 2012, teaching himself from online tutorials and textbooks. His dreams of working for rocket creator SpaceX or launching his own tech startup have humble origins in simple retro-style arcade games. As he mastered computer languages, his ambitions grew, and his portfolio now includes over 35 apps.

"You can do anything. Look at us, we're sitting here at WE Day and all these people know [our] story." Johnny Ciocca.
"You can do anything. Look at us, we're sitting here at WE Day and all these people know [our] story." Johnny Ciocca.

Of all his apps, though, it’s youBelong that led the brothers to WE Day to share their story. Johnny and Christian are excited about the potential to impact even more lives as the WE Day audience learns about youBelong, maybe even inspiring other young creators to use tech for good in their own communities.

youBelong is the embodiment of Johnny’s philosophy—in tens of thousands of lines of code—that technology can build community and change the world. Since launching in 2017, the number of users has grown steadily, now numbering in the thousands and hailing from across the U.S. and Canada, even as far as South Africa. Whenever a new member joins, they’re prompted to fill in their bio and explain what drew them; most say they’re looking for new friends, giving Christian and others on the app a budding roster of people to connect with and proving that technology can be an amazing force for inclusion.

Their journey and the lessons it contains are not lost on Johnny. “What can you accomplish?” he asks rhetorically. “You can do anything. Look at us, we’re sitting here at WE Day and all these people know story.”

Jesse Mintz
Jesse Mintz
Jesse Mintz

Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.