Monday, December 5, 2011

Pittsburgh CONNECTS: Public computer centers offer broadband technology to low-income communities

Unemployed for nearly two years, Richard Witt was struggling to find work when he noticed a sign outside of the Bloomfield Garfield Pittsburgh CONNECTS center about jobs.
Last Friday afternoon, Witt, of Highland Park, worked on one of the many computers set up at the center to allow people to use the internet to fit their needs, including searching for jobs.
“Wherever I see the word jobs, I got to stop to find out. So I came in to ask some questions about it and then I found out they had other programs like computers and resumes,” said Witt.
This center, as well as three others in the Pittsburgh area, was created thanks to a grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) which was given to the Neighborhood Learning Alliance. BTOP funds public computer centers across the country and a total of 55 grants were awarded in all.
The Pittsburgh CONNECTS (Creating an Organized Neighborhood Network to Enhance Community Technology Services) program aims to provide access to broadband technology as well education, training and connections to internet content to low income communities.
The other centers are the Hill House Pittsburgh CONNECTS on Center Avenue, the Homewood-Brushton YMCA on Bennett Street, and the Hilltop Pittsburgh CONNECTS on Brownsville Road.
The centers are open seven days a week and hours vary depending on the location. The centers have extensive hours, usually opening around 8 or 9 a.m. and closing around 9 or 10 p.m.
The Pittsburgh CONNECTS Bloomfield Garfield
Center is located at 5321 Penn Avenue.
Pittsburgh CONNECTS centers are free and open to the public and they offer laptops, printers and high speed internet. To sign up to use the centers, people must be residents of Pittsburgh and at least 12 years old. Once registered, they’ll receive a username and password that gives them storage space in the servers, allowing them to access their information at all four centers.
Jim Lenkner, Program Coordinator for Pittsburgh CONNECTS, said that commerce, education, social networking and access to public services are “all delivered through technology and if you don’t have those skills, you’re actually left out in the cold.”
Low income urban communities have the lowest adoption rates of broadband technology due to cost and inability to use technology.
Lenkner said that even those living in low income communities who do have home internet service, “don’t use it as effectively… because the use of technology is not something that they’re comfortable with or they’ve had negative experiences in the past.”
Pittsburgh CONNECTS hopes to mend this issue by providing people with a casual environment where they can use these computers to become more fluent and comfortable with technology.
Since technology is such a necessary life skill, the program focuses on three important areas: employment, education and health and wellness.
Pittsburgh CONNECTS partners with organizations such the Eastside Neighborhood Employment Center, the Hill House Association, and the Homewood-Brushton Family YMCA to develop job skills and locate employment opportunities.
In addition to partnering with employment centers, the program also focuses on teaching people how to navigate the internet and use web search tools, as well as word processing skills for creating resumes.
As part of their commitment to education, Pittsburgh CONNECTS is partnering with Pittsburgh Public Schools to work with students in the centers and through after school programs. The program understands the importance of having access to broadband technology as a student.
The program is also partnering with the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing as well as Allegheny General Hospital to bring in programs about various health and wellness issues. They are also teaching users how to find reliable medical information on the web.
With these ideas in mind, the four Pittsburgh CONNECTS centers offer classes to help people gain fluency in various computer-related areas.  Class topics include Computer ABC’s, word processing, navigating the internet, iPhone, Gmail, and more.
Witt, who has taken classes at the center, couldn’t say no to the helpful courses they offered since he needed to learn how to use a computer.
“That’s the only way you can get a job nowadays,” he said.
Michael La Fleur, technology center coordinator for Pittsburgh CONNECTS, teaches some of the classes and hopes these computer centers and classes will help people gain computer competency.
“A lot of basic core concepts that are really easy to grasp, many adults just don’t have and many teens don’t practice,” said La Fleur. “It’s getting people who don’t have those computer skills or don’t think of internet as a necessity, to think of it as a necessity.”
Pittsburgh CONNECTS already has plans to expand including a computer lending program, a low cost computer purchasing program, more classes, and a coffee/snack bar in each of the centers.
“We’re in the business of all of those areas that support and enlighten the use of broadband technology in the homes of people in low income communities with the hopes of improving the outcomes,” said Lenkner.

Published in Volume 1 of To The Point on page 2 and online at

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