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The computer age is any age

In the nationwide SeniorNet Program, volunteers teach computer classes for older adults, with a goal of ''bringing wisdom to the computer age.''

By RANDOLPH FILLMORE
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2003


Those venturing into the Pinellas Science Center on any afternoon will probably stumble into the 21st century computer lab.

There, C drives hum, mice click and instructors pace in front of rows of computers, each with a student gazing intently at a monitor. No, they are not the next generation of computer whizzes. They are students in a nationwide program for seniors who want to learn about computers.

The SeniorNet Program, offered by the University of South Florida in Tampa and at the Science Center, is in its 10th year. In that time, thousands of seniors have learned to surf the Internet, created family newsletters using sophisticated graphics programs, researched their family tree using genealogical software, mastered the latest version of the Microsoft Windows operating system or brushed up on their word processing.

"I take word processing every time it's offered," said Marian Upchurch, 78. When she is not putting in 20 hours a week as a certified nurses aid, Upchurch puts in a lot of time at SeniorNet. She has taken the word processing course "over and over again" and learns something new every time.

"I help keep records for my church and write a lot of letters," she said. "I have also taken Files and Folders, Graphics, E-mail and the Internet, and just about every class offered."

According to Ara Rogers, director of senior programs at the Institute on Aging at USF, SeniorNet is not only the best-kept secret in town, it is also a place where volunteerism lives, breathes and works.

"All of the SeniorNet courses are taught by volunteer coaches and instructors, who are also seniors. Volunteerism is at the heart of the program," Rogers said.

SeniorNet is a national nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. The goal of the organization, which started in 1986 and now has 220 learning centers nationwide and almost 40,000 members, is to build an international community of computer-using older adults. "You might say we are bringing wisdom to the computer age," Rogers said.

SeniorNet offers four- and eight-week courses for students over 50. To take computer courses, students need to join SeniorNet, which has a $40 annual membership fee. Then students pay for each course, generally a $75 fee for the eight-week session. Classes are from 1 to 3:30 p.m. weekdays at the Science Center.

Gladys Evan of Largo said she has taken courses since 2000, when she wanted to learn a computer program that would help her research her family tree. She had almost no experience using a computer and tried learning on her own but found that working with instructors was much easier.

"I started with Introduction to Computers, then took Family Tree Maker, Files and Folders, and I have recently taken the graphics course. I am now making signs and banners, letterhead, cards and importing photos into documents."

Rogers said, "For many seniors, computers are a little scary, but SeniorNet is a comfortable learning environment." Many students passing through the classes have put their new skills to good use, instructor Erwin Entel said. He recalled a student in one of his classes who was a Pearl Harbor survivor and president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. He used his graphics training to publish a newsletter for other survivors.

"The manuals are explicit, and the learning pace is just right. Nothing is thrown at you. Once more, the coaching system is unique. As students learn, coaches circulate through the lab and help anyone who needs a little extra explanation," Entel said. Many students stick around and become coaches and eventually instructors.

Betty Jo Scherer took Introduction to Computers in 1997 and in 2000 began teaching the graphics class.

"In 1995 I was involved with the local Amateur Ballroom Dancing Association," Scherer said. "I needed to do a lot of typing and sending out fliers. I got tired of doing it on a typewriter. So I bought a computer so that I could make fliers with a graphics program." Another advantage of the Internet, Rogers said, is that it puts resources at the fingertips of seniors, who may not be as mobile as they once were.

Many students in the program have used their computer skills to keep in touch with distant family members through e-mail, and some have set up Web sites with family photos and published family newsletters.

"Often, learning about the computer opens up a new world to seniors," Rogers said. "Not only do the classes themselves provide a social environment and companionship, the Web offers worldwide access to libraries, museums -- all without barriers."

-- Randolph Fillmore is a freelance writer who lives in Tampa.

About SeniorNet

To register or to request a schedule for spring classes, which start in March, call (813) 974-2403. If you want to learn more about the national program, visit the Web site, www.seniornet.org, or log on to www.hsc.usf.edu/ioa/seniorprograms to learn more about the SeniorNet program in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

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