Laughter erupts again at one of the computer workstations. Operating the keyboard and mouse with ease, Elijah cracks up again as he clicks on his favorite sound effect called “Abyss”. He has recently finished writing and producing a Science Fiction drama using multimedia software with the help of his mentor, Chris Gomez. Next, Elijah wants to focus on creating his own ringtones. Elijah is one of a number of students involved in the unique Computers4Kids (C4K) mentoring program.
Reaching out to the Community
Computers4Kids is a non-profit after-school technology mentoring program for disadvantaged youth. They strive to improve the computer and learning skills of low-income kids through caring mentorship, structured training, a vibrant learning environment, and access to a computer at home. The program uses computers as a catalyst for youth to challenge themselves, become engaged in their own learning, and realize greater possibilities academically, professionally, and for their community.
Michaela Tighe, Communications and Grants Manager for C4K, describes the organization. “We are bringing technology to kids who wouldn’t have access otherwise, living in a society where computers are important.” She got involved with C4K because it meets such an important community need and was an exciting place to be.
Computers4Kids has been involved with addressing community needs from the start. C4K provides technology training and access to middle and high school students (grades 7-12) who live in Charlottesville and Albemarle counties in Virginia and specifically meet the federal requirements for free and reduced price lunches.
A number of organizations already provide refurbished computers to people in need. However, C4K goes well beyond that by not only providing the equipment, but also backing it with solid training and education through its one-of-a-kind mentoring program.
Kala Somerville has been the Executive Director for C4K since it opened its doors in 2001. She comments on how integral mentors are to the organization. “People ask, ‘What is the most important thing about the program?’ It’s the mentors. Students have busy lives with parents working multiple jobs to support the family. Mentors can provide that missing one-to-one attention that we all crave.”
The Mentoring Program
Computers4Kids has anywhere from 50 to 85 active student/mentor pairs in the program at any given time. The mentors are adult volunteers who have a passion for helping kids, providing educational support and serving as a role model and advocate.
The students meet with their mentors for a total of 36 hours, typically one hour per week for 9 months. During that time, they will learn anything from basic computer skills to advanced training with software and Internet technologies. By the end of the training, they will have completed two major technology projects and can officially graduate from the program. Students who participate with the C4K mentoring program can receive a free computer to take home. In addition, students can qualify for a year of free Internet access.
The Rewards of Mentoring
Chris Gomez is a mentor who volunteers one hour per week at C4K. This is his third year with the program. He returns year after year because of the rewards of working with his students. Chris explains, “I like watching them try new things, learn, discover, and see their sense of achievement.”
The mentoring sessions are casual and student-driven. A typical question at the start of a session is, “What do you want to do today?” Chris feels his role is to facilitate the use of computers as an instrument to solve a problem or to be creative.
Creativity through Software
This summer, Chris has been working with Elijah on a number of projects. Elijah is a creative writer who likes to write on his own and has a fantastic imagination. Starting with a Science Fiction narrative that Elijah wrote, Chris was looking for a way to bring the story off the page. He did a Google search and found software products by Screaming Bee that might help: ScriptVOX Studio and MorphVOX Pro.
They found ScriptVOX Studio useful for reading the dialogue in Elijah’s story. Going beyond that, Elijah used MorphVOX Pro in producing an audio play of his Science-Fiction story. By changing his voice with the software, he was able to create all four character voices on his own and finish a full-length old-time radio drama.
Elijah: "It was fun using those voices and sound effects. The difference between my voice and the one on MorphVOX Pro was uncanny."
In completing this project, Elijah has mastered tools that could unlock his creativity and created a finished product that he could be proud of. Chris comments on how satisfying it was to complete the project: “That’s the success story – to see the smile on his face.”
Chris also sees the benefit of the mentoring program which gives his students an edge when competing in academics and, in the larger picture, the working world. The students learn a number of life lessons and skills that go beyond technology. “The students learn accountability, showing up on time for the sessions, planning, communicating with people and how to finish what you started.”
The Future of Computers4Kids
The next focus for Computers4Kids will be to get the program for high school students off the ground and running. The Grad Central program will target high school students who have completed the 36 hours of one-to-one mentoring and technology training and graduated from the C4K program.
These students will receive advanced software training and serve as peer mentors to the newer C4K students. They will also work collaboratively on group projects, attend workshops on developing academic and career skills, and participate in job-shadowing opportunities provided by mentors in the community.
Many Success Stories
Computers4Kids has done some amazing things with limited financial and human resources. With just a staff of three-and-a-half full time employees and a number of volunteers, it has provided technology and education for Charlottesville and surrounding communities for over 7 years. Since 2001, C4K reports 230 students successfully completed the program. 96% of C4K graduates have graduated from high school and 90% of C4K graduates have continued on to post-secondary education.
For more information on Computers4Kids, please visit http://www.computers4kids.net.;