Since 1999, USinternetworking Corporation (USi) and its employees have given generously their time, talent and funds to help public housing youth in Annapolis, Maryland, bridge the digital divide. They started two neighborhood computer centers. They rewarded promising computer students with 60 home PCs. They established a server and Web site for public housing residents as a learning tool for students at computer lab. They enriches these contributions with a superb mentoring program. USi employees volunteer several after-work hours weekly helping children with reading, homework and computer; taking then new places; loving them and challenging them to excel.
Public housing youth face an uphill battle. Typically raised by a single guardian, with few positive role models and tremendous peer pressure to spend time on the streets, they often fall behind in school. Youth in the housing authority’s after-school programs are frequently two grade levels behind in reading. Access to computers can help, but poor reading prevents children from getting the most from information technology. USi’s solution was 15 volunteer mentors for children age 7 to 12 who seemed likely to benefit from a helping hand. Since May 2000, mentors meet weekly with their charges, help them with homework or computer skills, play or just visit with them. Strong bonds have been developed.
Mentors take their charges outside public housing neighborhoods to Annapolis sites, mentors’ homes and places of work, introducing them to different people and ways of life. Mentors meet with the youths’ families and teachers to get their insights on how best to help. Through reading and computer practice, they expose children to new ideas, life styles, technologies, and the worldwide Web. Most importantly, mentors are models of adult behavior that these youth can strive to follow.
At program start in May 2000, mentors agreed to volunteer six months. Ninety percent are still working, love it, and plan to continue indefinitely. New mentors have replaced those who stopped.
Children with mentors have maintained their grades. Some have improved reading and virtually all have enhanced computer skills. They are proud to have mentors. Far from resenting an adult figure urging them to do their homework, they try to please. No mentored child has asked to leave the program, but children without mentors want them.
This program is unique in integrating mentors with computer training, home computer awards, and reading improvement programs supported by USi, so each program enriches the others. Mentors and children use the excellent computer lab facilities for projects. Mentors strategize with computer instructors and after-school program staff about how to address problems they see. In effect, the mentors, teachers, after-school staff and parents work as a team to help youth overcome obstacles.