Laptops bring youth off the streets

A San Francisco nonprofit is donating refurbished laptops for at-risk teenagers to pursue higher education or find jobs

Laptops can be easily taken for granted by those who have direct access to them, but the devices are a salvation for some at-risk teenagers and young adults caught up in gang and drug-related activity in San Francisco.

The lack of laptops prevents at-risk teenagers and young adults in foster homes and juvenile halls from finding decent jobs, educational resources and other services critical to improving their lives. A laptop donation program in San Francisco aims to help the teens build a promising future by providing technology resources.

The nonprofit group City Youth Now donates refurbished laptops for at-risk teenagers to use. Laptops are a key element in helping the teens succeed as they prepare to graduate high school and go to college, said Brittany Heinrich, executive director of CYN.

"In today's age, a computer is kind of like a pencil if you're going to college. You have to register online and submit essays online. Everything's about the computer," Heinrich said.

Laptops are handed out to foster-care residents between the ages of 17 and 22 and to juveniles between 16 and 19 who are on probation for committing crimes. The nonprofit has given out 72 computers since 2008 and plans to give 60 more starting in July. A beneficiary is chosen based on high-school grades and recommendation letters.

One teenager named Devin used the laptop as a tool to get away from a miserable life of drug and gang-related activity. His criminal activities landed him in juvenile hall, but he is now a student majoring in business at the Mississippi Valley State University.

"Moving to college and attending a school so far from San Francisco was really hard. It was hard to fit in, but having a laptop helped me feel part of the university, made it possible for me to complete assignments and work at any hour of the day," Devin said. "It has made me feel connected and makes the school and workload seem doable. I don't feel overwhelmed or at a disadvantage compared to the other students."

Another teenager, Orlando, said the donated laptop allowed him to go to college and find jobs online. The laptop was one reason he could get away from an uncertain life in foster-care homes after his grandmother died when he was 15.

"The computer ... has helped me to get a job, do my homework on time and properly, and advance my overall education and personal life," said Orlando, who is now 19 years old and attending City College of San Francisco. He also uses the computer to stay in touch with his siblings, who were placed in different foster homes after his grandmother died.

But the program has seen some bumps and not everyone who got a laptop has reaped the rewards.

"The laptop is used as a toy, not used properly, or it becomes a distraction" for some kids, Heinrich said.

A few failures are bound to happen in a city where it's hard for disadvantaged people to make ends meet. Of about 4,000 teenagers stuck in foster care and juvenile halls, only 38 percent finish high school, Heinrich said. Laptops could provide them an extra push to overcome failure they may be accustomed to, she said.

Though parallels could be drawn, CYN's program differs from One Laptop Per Child's project, where laptops are provided to children in developing countries, said Kami Griffiths, director of the Community Technology Network, a San Francisco nonprofit that trains underprivileged people on using computers.

"Many programs give laptops to kids in schools, but not many distribute laptops to youth in cities who have been ignored by the education system," Griffiths said. The technological challenges faced by urban youth differ from kids entrenched in an educational system, she said.

"If they are high school dropouts, they may have low literacy and comprehension. So even if they have a computer and know how to use it, you can't expect them ... to take an online course if their reading comprehension is low."

A larger concentration of population in urban areas also changes computer training needs, Griffiths said. For example, it may be more relevant to teach kids how to access tools like social networking, which could make it easier to find jobs, she said.

CYN recognizes the challenges and hands out the laptops responsibly, Heinrich said. Program participants have to demonstrate reading skills to make effective use of computers.

In one instance, a participant did not understand how to use a computer at the end of the training session. "We had him come in for a personal tutoring session and we gave him the computer after that," Heinrich said.

The City of San Francisco's Department of Technology helps organize training for program participants. Students learn how to use basic computer programs such as Web browsers and office productivity applications during a three-hour training session. Training also touches on Internet safety and how to use multimedia tools, like making movies through Windows Movie Maker or editing audio through Audacity.

There's a larger need for such laptop donation programs across the U.S., CYN's Heinrich said. She's getting calls from social workers across the country for laptop donations, but has had to turn them down, she said. Organizing the program in San Francisco was easier because everyone in the city understands the need for a computer, she said.

"I think because San Francisco is so near the Silicon Valley and is so progressive, it's made it possible for this program to launch," Heinrich said.

CYN's donation program falls under the San Francisco government's "Digital Inclusion" program, which aims to narrow the city's digital divide. Some laptops donated include Lenovo ThinkPads, which are furnished by Redemtech. Microsoft provides a copy of Office 2003 for US$5 for each laptop.

The city government hopes to expand other existing technology-related projects, said Emy Tseng, project director of the digital inclusion programs with the San Francisco government. She's fighting to grab a part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed in February by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

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