Bridging the Digital Divide

Bridging the Digital Divide

Learning computer skills opens doors for participants of a local nonprofit program.

When Abdul Agermoune came to America in 1999, he had never used a computer. He had never sent an e-mail or even seen a mouse. None of his friends or relatives in Morocco had ever owned a computer — and although he had been accepted to George Mason University to study Economics, he was ill equipped to handle the technological challenge of being a modern student.

"Computer C.O.R.E. opened the door," he said. "I now have the skills that are needed to enter the job force."

Now, Agermoune has a job at Wright Pattman Congressional Federal Credit Union — a job he got on the condition that he complete the Computer C.O.R.E. program. In April, he became a financial analyst. He credits much of his success to the nonprofit organization that taught him how to use a computer.

"I told myself that I was going to start coming every day because I didn’t want to disappoint the manager who hired me," Agermoune said. "I even learned how to type."

COMPUTER C.O.R.E. — Community Outreach and Education — is a 501(c) public charity that was formed in 1999 to help teach computer skills to low-income adults, and acquire technological and life skills. It was created by Debra Roepke, who remains the organization’s executive director. She founded the program after moving to Virginia in the late 1990s to help people without computer skills reach their potential.

"Despite transportation, child care, health care and other challenges, they come to class twice a week for six months and 92 percent of the Fall 2004 students completed the entire course," Roepke said. "And recently, employers have started calling C.O.R.E. to ask if they can hire our graduates. Clearly, something special is going on here and the community of C.O.R.E. is thriving."

In 2004, volunteers donated more than 11,000 hours valued at more than $400,000. Volunteer retention was 95 percent, with two graduating classes. The class that finished in April had 39 graduates, and the class that finished in December had 40 graduates.

The program has two components: classroom instruction in computer skills and success strategies for goal setting, skill identification, cover letter development, resume development and job-search assistance. Computer C.O.R.E. also gives a computer to each of its students once they have completed the first seven weeks of instruction.

Roepke says that job interview skills are especially challenging for women who come from cultures in which bragging is forbidden.

"It’s a lot to take on board," she said. "The student is really getting a life experience here."

Ultimately, though, it’s the skills they learn on the computer that make them marketable.

"If you know the skills, the technology has no boundaries," said Dick Moose, a member of the organization’s board of directors. "It really opens the door to so many things."

THE PROGRAM HAS many partners. Fairlington Presbyterian Church provides a classroom and office space as well as financial support. Internet Applications Group donated an Internet service. Microsoft donates Windows and Office Suite software. The Alexandria Volunteer Bureau recruits and refers volunteers to C.O.R.E.

Roepke tries to leverage the program’s connections and resources to support significant in-kind contributions. For every dollar that was raised, the nonprofit received goods and services valued at more than $2.

At an open house demonstrating the program last month, program directors received a striking endorsement. E. Cecil Black attended the open house to present two checks. One check was for $12,000 from the Boeing Employees Community Fund, and the other check was a matching contribution of $12,000 from Boeing.

"Each organization collects locally and donates locally," Black said. "Computers are embedded in every part of our business, so we are really impressed with Computer C.O.R.E."

Participants in the program must be adults living in Northern Virginia who have a household income less than $44,000. They must be able to speak and write English at a sixth-grade level and have an interest in long-term career development.