July 25, 2002
Stocks look like a meteor shower. Unemployment is rising. High tech companies are imploding. But hope truly does spring eternal as proven by the largest group of graduates from Computer C.O.R.E.
Friday night in Fellowship Hall of Farlington Presbyterian Church, 30 individuals from 11 countries marched onto the stage to accept their graduation certificates in basic computer skills they hope will be the key to a better life.
A non-profit organization, Computer C.O.R.E., Community Outreach and Education, was established three years ago as the inspiration of Debra Roepke, a community college computer teacher from Grinnell, Iowa, who became a member of the local church.
"When I was teaching computer literacy in the community college I realized that more than 50 percent of my students got new jobs after their first class," Roepke said. "Then I started getting other faculty members signing up."
She moved to Alexandria five years ago and joined Fairlington Presbyterian Church. That's when she convinced the minister to establish a class. The church gave the first grant and Computer C.O.R.E. was born, according to Roepke.
"Our students are all on the same level. They have little or no prior computer experience," explained Carol Freeman, Computer C.O.R.E. executive director.
"Students are all low-income with a family income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and they reside in this region where the cost of living is very high," Freeman emphasized. "Some are unemployed but most are members of the working poor."
The cost of the program is free and is six months long. Classes meet twice a week with each being two hours long. There are both day and evening classes. Students can also come to the school, when classes are not in session, to practice on the computers.
"We also have a whole human relations component to help them get better jobs. It covers how to get a job, writing a resume, interviewing, and all the other skills needed," said Freeman.
IN ADDITION TO computer training there is also an all volunteer mentoring program. "Right now there are about 15 mentors. But our goal is to get it up to one on one," she said.
Starting with only six students, Friday night's class of 30 was the largest. It started with 40 in January. A new class began this past Monday with a total of 55, Freeman noted.
The only cost is a $45 charge for materials. Upon completion each student receives a free Pentium One computer, complete with software and a modem. These are donated by businesses and individuals and refurbished at the Chubb Institute in Reston. All graduates were also presented with a computer users guide that was written by one of the volunteers, according to Freeman.
In presenting the certificates of graduation to the students, Alexandria Mayor Kerry Donley, said, "You graduates are living proof of the success of this program. We want successful citizens. We want you to be contributing members of the community.
"You have to have these skills just to keep up. Not only in the work place, but to be a successful parent you have to have computer skills. It is important that we communicate with our children on many levels, computers are one of those levels."
Donley also praised the church for taking the initiative to establish the program. "Our churches in Alexandria are our biggest untapped resource," he said.
ADDRESSING THE GRADUATES, Donley noted this was his third graduation ceremony at Computer C.O.R.E. "The first was in the small parlor downstairs. Now we're in fellowship hall and it's still growing," he said.
Joining Donley in presenting the certificates was Renee McDonald, Legislative Assistant to Congressman James Moran (D-8), who read a congratulatory letter from him. Also present were Alexandria Vice Mayor William C. Cleveland, and Councilwoman, Redella S. Pepper.
School staff, in addition to Freeman, is composed of three parttime teachers, one parttime consultant, and 75 active volunteer teachers and assistants, Freeman verified. "Debra has just been hired as our new program director. Until now she has been donating 40 to 60 hours of her time per week," Freeman said.
"We do do some screening to determine a student's proficiency level in English," Roepke explained. "It's necessary because of dealing with the computers. We get a lot of our students from the ESL [English As A Second Language] classes at Christ's Church."
Founded in 1999, more than 50 percent of C.O.R.E.'s annual budget is from in-kind contributions, including the space donated by the church, computers, and over 4,000 hours of volunteer service. The program includes:
* Basic computer training in keyboarding, Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, the internet, and computer hardware,
* Workshops on professional development,
* Mentoring, and
* Job placement guidance that includes partnerships with local businesses that have agreed to interview graduates for entry-level jobs requiring computer skills.
"Many students have families and two thirds of current students are women. Recently there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign born students. They made up more than 50 percent of the recent class," according to C.O.R.E. statistics.
Friday night's graduating class was comprised of students representing Ghana, Ethiopia, Somalia, Russia, Sudan, Rwanda, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, Zambia, and the United States.
"Some of the students have advanced degrees from their countries of origin but lack the necessary computer skills to obtain better paying jobs. The ultimate goal of our program is to help our students find better employment opportunities," Freeman said.