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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001

New ways of bridging the gap

Staff writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- After driving past the new high-rise office buildings of Silicon Valley, the narrow roads and simple houses of neighboring East Palo Alto signal a major change in circumstance.

It is a low-income community once branded the murder capital of the country and the perfect counterpoint to the high-tech hub in an example of the "digital divide."

It is also a good place to start in bridging that information gap.

Eighth-grader Veronica Hernandez displays a T-shirt designed by her and her fellow members of Plugged in Enterprises.

Plugged In Enterprises is a local nonprofit organization aimed at providing East Palo Alto's young people a practical education in Internet technology.

While many nonprofit organizations across the nation provide computer classes for individuals and groups, Plugged In Enterprises is among those taking a different approach.

Set up in 1996 as an updated version of a four-year-old after-school program, its teenage staff produces Web sites, computer graphics and other services. Its corporate clients include Hewlett-Packard and Pacific Bell.

"East Palo Alto was a low-income community in the middle of prosperity brought by high-tech industries in Silicon Valley," says Magda Escobar, the NPO's executive director. Her group, she explains, was launched in the hope of offsetting the community's core problems of poor education and poverty by providing its youth with a foundation in computer technology.

So the center built in 1992 to provide kids with a safe place to hang out was filled with computers. Today, beneficiaries of the program get an intensive education in the latest Web design technology, work experience and even client management support.

"It's actually a community production studio," Escobar says. "People come and produce things."

It also provides children, she adds, with a "rich and authentic learning environment" that has helped cultivate interest in technology.

Eighth-grader Veronica Hernandez, a member of Plugged In Enterprises, says she loves her work.

"My job is to do graphic design for billboards," she says. "It's really exciting."

According to Escobar, 66 percent of teenagers who worked at Plugged In Enterprises went on to take computer programming classes in high school and 33 percent majored in something related to technology in college.

Even those who don't pursue careers in the field, she says, often use the center's computers to produce art or draft resumes and business plans.

Plugged In Enterprises has raised $50,000 in revenue in fiscal 1998 and 1999, despite the relatively low fees it charges clients, according to the organization.

More importantly, Escobar says, her group's work has helped recover pride in local people by drawing national attention as a model for bridging the information gap.

"(Our activities have helped) create a renewed sense of local people being able to shape their communities in positive ways," she says.

San Francisco-based CompuMentor is another nonprofit group tackling the computer illiteracy rate from a different angle. It acts as an intermediary to match schools and its fellow NPOs with computer-savvy volunteers to provide one-on-one training.

President Daniel Ben-Horin says he established CompuMentor in the belief that the most effective way for people to embrace computers is to learn about them with a real-life mentor at their side.

"As the computer world expands, you have to use the technology without losing the human touch," Ben-Horin says.

In addition to dispatching volunteers, CompuMentor also distributes low-cost software, and its activities are expanding. The group's annual budget has doubled in size in the past 18 months to $3.6 million.

Since its establishment in 1987, CompuMentor has provided services for more than 23,000 nonprofit groups and schools.

Under the mentor program, when a school or a nonprofit group contacts CompuMentor for technical assistance, a volunteer is selected from a registered list of about 2,000 and an action plan with specific goals is prepared. After a match is made, CompuMentor keeps in contact with both volunteer and recipient to make sure everything works out.

The process, says Joan Heberger, the group's project associate, is very time consuming.

CompuMentor charges between $100 and $175 for the mentor-matching service. The money, says Ben-Horin, is used to keep abreast of the latest technology, for which CompuMentor spares no expense.

Nonprofit groups, he says, must begin thinking about spending for technology as they would for basic necessities such as light bulbs and electricity.

"Unless they start making it a part of their economic life, they are going to be in trouble."

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