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Mentoring tomorrow

Computer Mentors and its volunteers are helping underprivileged youth in Tampa learn about technology and, in the process, earn a home computer.

By YILU ZHAO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Ralph Smith, of Computer Mentors, works with Lonnie Sams, 13, as he installs software on a personal computer. Sams joined the class in June and by December was able to assemble a computer which he then got to take home.

TAMPA -- Kia Flower wanted a computer badly before going off to college. As a Hillsborough High School senior, she had to go to the public library every time she needed to look up information she could have found online.

"It was difficult in high school when I did not have a computer, so I definitely could not go to college without one," she said. But her mother, raising two children on her own, could not afford one.

Then Flower heard that a man named Ralph Smith was giving away computers to inner-city teenagers in Tampa. But first she would have to take lessons in computer literacy. She would even have to assemble a computer that had been stripped down to a pile of parts.

"No sweat," Flower wrote in an alumni letter to Computer Mentors, the non-profit organization Smith founded in 1997.

So far, 118 students, all of them poor and most of them minorities, have participated in Computer Mentors. About a fourth made it far enough to be awarded a new computer like the Compaq desktop that Flower, 18, is using in her freshman year at Florida State University.

Smith started Computer Mentors when he was a computer systems administrator at the Tampa office of Citibank. After work he tutored five children of bank employees in a space provided by the Ybor City branch of the Hillsborough County Library.

As the group expanded, Smith moved his classes, first to a nearby church and later to a computer classroom provided by the Tampa branch of Urban Young Life, an international youth ministry organization.

He rounded up help from area businesses dedicated to narrowing the "digital divide," the gap between society's technology haves and have-nots. It's a concern bolstered by findings such as a 1998 study by the Commerce Department showing that whites were more than twice as likely to own a home computer as blacks or Hispanics.

Smith, and the businesses that support him, also are trying to interest more minority students in pursuing careers in technology.

The Tampa offices of telephone company Verizon and accounting and consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers provide many of the volunteers who work with Smith's teens. Verizon and Capital One, the credit card company, have donated most of the computers that Smith awards.

In 1999, Smith quit his job at Citibank to meet the non-profit organization's growing demands on his time and energy.

Now Smith, 49, makes about $30,000 annually as the executive director of Computer Mentors (www.computermentors.org) and as the owner of a small technology consulting company. His yearly income exceeded $70,000 when he worked for Citibank.

"I found I did not need all that much money," said Smith, whose commitment was shaped by a mentor who helped him when he was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich. "He had a big impact on me. I am trying to replicate what he had done for me."

* * *

At 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, teenagers streamed into the computer classroom of Urban Young Life, a pink one-room house in the Tampa Heights neighborhoods. They were 13 to 16 years old. Most were black or Hispanic, and more than half were from single-parent families.

To make sure the computers and the training to use them go to those in need, Smith's program serves families living in a low-income rectangle bordered by Busch and Gandy boulevards, 56th Street and Dale Mabry Highway. The 22 teens enrolled are divided between Tuesday and Thursday night sessions.

There were eight teens in the classroom for the Tuesday session. Two of the kids lugged in the desktops they had been awarded by Computer Mentors so Smith could upgrade them. Soon, three volunteers who would answer the teenagers' computer questions arrived.

The kids settled into chairs, and the class began. There was no lecture. CD-ROMs did the teaching; Smith and the volunteers answered questions as they came up. It would have been impossible to design a uniform curriculum for students at different levels of computer proficiency, Smith said. And teens learn at different speeds. But the tests for advancement are the same. And at some point, everyone has to assemble a computer that has been taken apart before getting to take that PC home.

Soon, David Kinard, 15, was deep in a discussion about C+, a popular programming language, with Daniel Tung, a twentysomething volunteer from the Tampa branch of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Shawn Chin, another volunteer from the same company, was showing his Web site to Lonnie Sams, 13. Sams was ready to design his own.

When Kinard and Sams joined the group in June, they started by taking the basic classes, which introduced them to Microsoft Office. By Christmas, each was able to assemble a computer to take home. After that, their computer studies turned to topics such as Web site development and basic programming.

The computer training, and the attention that goes with it, has an influence on some of the teens that goes beyond the mouse and keyboard. Kinard has had his share of troubles at school; he said he is repeating the eighth grade. But now the 15-year-old says he can see his dream to start a computer game designing company come true.

For Rolisha Wright, a 16-year-old who wants to be a surgeon, Smith has provided a lesson in taking action to succeed.

"He changed my life. If I wasn't coming here, I would be sitting in front of the TV, sitting around, being bored, being lazy, not learning anything," said Wright. "My mom is very happy. This is something that keeps me out of trouble."

For other kids, Smith's program offers hope to escape the grinding labor their parents endure.

"Now I know at least I wouldn't be flipping burgers at McDonald's for the rest of my life," said Nelson Vazquez, 14, whose Puerto Rico-born father is a trucker.

Smith, intent on giving his kids an extra edge in the job market, campaigns aggressively among local businesses to take his students as summer interns. These internships might lead to permanent jobs after high school or college.

* * *

As the teens in Computer Mentors imagine a prosperous future, they talk of someday returning the favor to Smith. Vazquez talked about providing funding for the group when he starts to make money, and Kinard wants to build the group a big, state-of-art computer center.

For now, Smith has several new sources of support. Some high-tech executives who are part of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum have joined Computer Mentor's advisory board. The forum also will aid Computer Mentors as part of its digital divide project to provide equipment and Internet access to underprivileged children.

PowerUp, a national organization that pools public and private funds to improve computer literacy (www.powerup.org), selected Computer Mentors as one of 24 programs in Florida to receive computer equipment, and the state of Florida has awarded the group cash grants.

In addition to Computer Mentors, the Tampa Bay area organizations receiving PowerUp help are Tampa United Methodist Centers Inc. and Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of St. Petersburg.

With the additional cash and new equipment Smith expects to get from PowerUp and the state, he is moving the classes to a bigger room in the College Hills neighborhood, complete with new computers. He also has decided to add two more sessions a week to admit preteen children.

Meantime, he is planning to reduce the hours he works for his consulting company to devote more hours to Computer Mentors.

"The kids, and letters like the one from Kia (the FSU freshman), make it worthwhile," Smith said.

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