| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
At 71, Cat Christensen didn’t grow up around computers.
After retiring as a social worker in 2006, she recently decided she needed to reenter the workforce in order to keep up with demanding medical expenses.
But when her computer “self-destructed” four months ago – just as the coronavirus pandemic was reaching a crescendo – she found herself with no way to apply for jobs or financial assistance, much less stay connected with loved ones around the country.
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Christensen was one of 10 women who got to participate in the pilot launch of “Tech to Connect,” a partnership between the Women’s Resource Center and Goodwill Manasota that provided laptops to clients after they completed digital literacy training.
“I learned some new things to make me more competitive with the younger people that knew these things before I did,” she said. “It was very helpful addressing the advantage they have in the job market so I could catch up somewhat.”
Goodwill brought the training room and instructors, while WRC brought the devices and additional support. Together, they selected five clients from each organization to launch the pilot class in June.
Based on the pilot’s success, both organizations say they hope to see the program expanded or replicated in the future.
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“Digital access has always been important to the people we serve,” said Margie Genter, vice president of mission services at Goodwill Manasota. “Most jobs require you to have some digital proficiency. That is becoming more and more important in the national labor market.”
The two organizations envisioned a program that would go beyond technical support. Genter said they wanted to create long-term relationships with clients, supplemented by the mentorship, career counseling, case management and mental health services offered by WRC.
It was also important that the clients got to keep the exact computers they trained on; that way, the hardware and software were already familiar to them. Microsoft Windows is a lot different from macOS, Genter said, and she didn’t want clients to forget the skills they’d spent hours learning.
“When you learn how to use a computer, it’s not just a few sessions and then you’re done,” Genter said. “Once you have the basics, you can teach yourself anything just by going online.”
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To be considered for the program, clients had to live in either Sarasota or Manatee county and already be engaged with either the WRC or Goodwill Manasota.
Any asset-challenged woman 18 or older was eligible, as long as they needed a device or internet access and were “highly motivated” to receive digital literacy training for a defined purpose, like employment, telehealth or education.
Goodwill’s coaches worked with each client to develop customized plans based on their goals and needs. While they established a set of basic skills for everyone – like file management, emailing and accessing the local library systems online – they also focused on what individual clients wanted to learn.
“It was much easier to learn at that intimate level with no distractions,” Christensen said. “It felt very personal.”
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The self-paced courses ranged from two to 10 weeks. The Suncoast Technology Users Group obtained free Windows 10 licenses for each computer, and SouthTech is providing free laptop bags to the participants as a “graduation” gift. The computers are also equipped with antivirus protection.
Upon completion, clients will have access to tech support from Goodwill’s information technology department. Genter says the participants can come back anytime, whether they need help or just want to pick up new skills.
“I think this will not be a one-and-done,” Genter said. “We want to maintain a lifelong relationship with the clients so they’re just becoming more and more proficient.”
Those without internet access were also provided assistance in getting it from low-cost programs, like Everyone On. And WRC’s Client Emergency Funds program was available for those who couldn’t get connected because of outstanding bills or other financial hardships.
“There is a big problem, and it does fall on people that can’t afford it, which are the very ones that need a computer the most,” Christensen said. “I hope that can somehow be addressed so it’s a level playing field … It’s every aspect of life now.”
Studies have shown that more than 40% of U.S. households earning $30,000 or less per year do not have home internet or a computer to access it – and those estimates were before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Achieving digital equity in our bi-county area requires intentional strategies and investments to identify and eliminate historical and structural barriers to access for underserved residents,” said Ashley Brown, CEO of the Women’s Resource Center.
To do that, Brown said, requires “establishing a cooperative and system-based approach, collecting data on technology gaps, coordinating the efforts of stakeholder groups, and sharing information about all aspects of access, including affordable broadband internet service, internet-enabled devices, access to digital literacy training, and quality technical support.”
“Our hope is that all residents will be able to participate fully in a technology-based economy,” she said.
Cherry Moore, 62, says she was “timid” at first about learning how to use a computer, since she had only ever used her phone. Now, she says she feels a lot safer.
“It works,” she said. “All you’ve got to do is come in and listen to what they tell you.”
After six weeks of classes, Moore knows how to do everything from creating files and surfing the web to banking online and taking cooking classes.
She’s even getting Wi-Fi next week so she can connect to the internet from home.
“The pandemic really taught me a lot. I’ve learned to be more self-sufficient,” she said. “They gave me confidence that I never had.”
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.