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Teens teaching teens to connect

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Bridging the divide | Goodwill in Raleigh | Teens teaching teens | One Laptop per Child | e-NC Authority | Connecting nonprofits

The Raleigh Boys Club is full of kids in the after-school hours. Away from the roar of the brightly colored main hall, two computer labs offer a quieter place to take classes and do homework. The labs were created by Teaming for Technology, a service program of the Triangle United Way, which counts the Boys Club as one of its members. T4T, as it's nicknamed, recycles and refurbishes donated computers for use in schools, churches, homes and nonprofits. This year, T4T is taking its work further, making the Raleigh Boys Club a launching pad for a new peer-training program.

"We are seeking to bridge the digital divide," says Michelle Gonzales, one of T4T's two full-time staff members. She and her partner, Joe Burgess, refurbished and found new homes for more than 1,700 computers in 2006. The donated machines are taken to the United Way's warehouse in Morrisville, where volunteers clean them up, test the monitors, load up systems and get them ready for new owners. The organization is the largest nonprofit, authorized Microsoft refurbisher in the Southeast, which means it can include the Windows operating system on the machines. Some of the computers end up in labs at community centers and nonprofits; others are distributed by the nonprofits to people who need them at home.

Having a computer at home makes a huge difference, especially to kids, Gonzales says. "Over and over we hear stories that people are taking two buses to the public library so their child can complete the research for a project." Public schools in Wake County now require eighth graders to pass a computer proficiency test. "You can imagine, if you look at the statistics, who is not passing it," she says.

T4T has a program called Teen Tech that enlists teenage volunteers through various organizations, teaching them how computers work, giving them marketable skills in repairing and refurbishing computers and then giving them a computer to take home. This year, the program is training a group of high school boys, who will in turn train a group of middle-school age boys.

The older kids are players in the Carolina Football Development League, a nonprofit mentoring program founded by Daryl Thomas in 2003 as a place for kids who can't play on their high school teams for whatever reason—because of academic or discipline problems, because they dropped out, or because they went to alternative or charter schools. "We use football as a hook to keep them interested in academics," Thomas says. Players take classes in life skills and character development to prepare them for everything from money management to fatherhood. "We've seen some real positive results," he says. "We've got kids who were ineligible to play for their high school because of grades playing on the school teams again."

Thomas also happens to be an IT geek (he works as a security analyst for the state). So the T4T program is a natural fit for the "whole player" approach of the league, he says. The players' first crack at the computers was last month in a meeting at the Boys Club, where they learned to take apart the CPUs and work "under the hood." So how did boys who daydream about playing for the NFL take to the computer skills? "At first there was some interest level, but when I put it in terms of dollars per hour, they were like, 'You're kidding me!'" Thomas says. A company might normally pay someone between $35 and $45 an hour to refurbish a PC. "I said, 'How would you like to make $150 for three or four hours of work?' They saw the opportunity for a lucrative career, and that's what really got their interest piqued."

"They deserve this opportunity," Gonzales says. "But they might not even have envisioned this training if they weren't exposed to it."

The boys are required to volunteer at the Black Families Technology Expo at Lyons Park Center in Durham on Feb. 21. Then, next month, the football players will start passing along their skills to the members of a service group called the Torch Club, middle school students who also use the Raleigh Boys Club. The seven middle-schoolers recently met with Gonzales to find out what they'd be doing. They say they want to learn how to create computer games and Web sites. The younger ones don't know it yet, but at the end of their training, all of the boys will be able to take a computer home with them.

Gonzales says she plans to track the progress of as many of the boys as possible for at least a year, and hopefully "all the way through," to see where their new skills take them.

To find out more about volunteering or donating computers to Teaming for Technology, visit www.unitedwaytriangle.org/t4t.

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