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Tech Goes Home nonprofit to bring free laptops, tech classes to Western Mass. 2/4/2023 Luis Fieldman,

As recently as 2020, nearly two in five households in Springfield did not own a desktop or laptop computer. Now, a non-profit dedicated to helping Massachusetts residents get online and teaching useful digital skills is bringing programming to Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Way Finders of Springfield is partnering with Tech Goes Home, the Boston-based non-profit, and the Alliance for Digital Equity to bring much-needed resources to low-income and Spanish-speaking residents of Springfield and Holyoke — and opportunities to get hands-on training and up to a year of free internet access upon completion of a course.

But that is just the start. Tech Goes Home, which began 23 years ago in Boston, recently announced it is expanding into the region and plans on offering courses in the three counties. The organization provides participants with a computer or tablet and 15 hours of tailored digital skills training along with a year of free internet.

Tech Goes Home’s “train a trainer” model means that there are currently five members of Way Finders in the process of becoming trainers, according to Beatrice Dewberry, the Community Building and Engagement Director for Way Finders.

The Alliance for Digital Equity, a partner of Tech Goes Home, found that 43% of households in Springfield did not have a desktop or laptop computer based on data from before the pandemic, according to a 2021 report by the group.

“There is a serious reluctance amongst many of the older adults to embrace digital technology,” a Springfield resident said in the report. “For many it is a cause of anxiety.”

One example of a Tech Goes Home program is called TGH Community, which partners with social service organizations that teach job searching skills, financial literacy, ways to communicate on social, accessing public benefits and finding educational programs. Programming is offered at libraries, community centers, public housing and similar organizations.

Each participant who completes a TGH course earns a Chromebook and 12 months of internet service, according to TGH’s website.

‘You lose access, you lose power’

Dewberry said access to the internet is a big issue for the families Way Finders engages with. The organization provides services to keep people in stable housing as well as employment support.

Many of the residents that Way Finders serves in Springfield and Holyoke are older adults, with low-income and Spanish-speaking people who felt disconnected as soon as the pandemic began.

“Immediately, older folks dealt with social isolation,” Dewberry said. “They didn’t know how to use Zoom and didn’t have devices. They lost contact with many of the folks they had before.”

She said that the pandemic highlighted how deep digital inequities in the region are and although Way Finders tried to provide devices such as laptops, it wasn’t enough. A lot of residents lacked the skills necessary to participate in Zoom calls, or lacked internet for telemedicine calls.

“People lost access,” Dewberry said. “You lose access, you lose power.”

Read more: ‘Modern-day necessity’: Easthampton takes step toward city-owned internet

With Tech Goes Home expanding to Western Mass., Dewberry said she hopes that by May or June, classes will start enrolling participants. She said Way Finders’ goal is to train 80 adults in its first year of programming, which will take place at the Holyoke Library Commons on Chestnut Street and a to-be-determined location in Springfield.

Classes for Spanish speakers will also be offered, according to Dewberry.

‘A huge help’

Nereida Tejeda first enrolled in a Tech Goes Home course over a decade ago and the lessons she learned influence her work today. She is a family liaison in the Boston Public School system and has gone on to become a TGH instructor.

Tejeda, 37, of Brighton said she passes on many of her digital tech skills to Boston families who struggle with technology.

In 2010, Tejeda said her son attended 5th grade at a Boston public school where Tech Goes Home began offering educational programming. At the time, Tejeda said her family benefitted greatly from the devices and the internet services the non-profit offered.

“It was a huge help because we didn’t have a laptop in our house,” Tejeda said. “It made our lives much easier having access to a device and internet.”

Her son could participate in online class activities and it gave Tejeda the ability to pay her bills online and communicate electronically, which she could not do before.

A member of the Western Massachusetts-based Alliance for Digital Equity said a variety of issues around accessing the internet and the ability to use technology devices are what the organization works to address.

“Digital literacy, appropriate skills and comfort level to use the internet, devices, and the affordability of being able to use them — those create digital equity,” said Michael DeChiara, an associate with the Alliance.

DeChiara compared digital equity to a civil right in modern America and that families and residents across the country depend on internet access for health care, jobs, connection with family, and other facets of life.

Tech Goes Home, he said, is well established in Eastern Massachusetts working with community groups and he said the organization “really helps people develop basic digital skills, using community resources and getting participants online.”

How does Tech Goes Home work?

Tech Goes Home helps enroll participants into the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which allows participants to access affordable internet service, according to Marvin Venay, the organization’s chief advocacy officer.

Venay said Tech Goes Home helps qualifying individuals enroll in the federal program, which provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from certain providers if participants pay between $10 to $50 toward the purchase price, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Tech Goes Home also provides graduates of their programs a year of free internet through partnerships with providers, Venay said. The non-profit provides either a modem or a hotspot device for internet access.

DeChiara said many residents of Western Mass. may not be aware that they already qualify for the FCC’s connectivity program. The FCC lists any household that participates in any one of the following assistance programs as automatically qualifying: free and reduced-price school lunch; SNAP benefits; Medicaid; Federal Housing Assistance; Veteran Pension or Survivor Benefits, to name a few.

As for the courses Tech Goes Home offers, Marvin Venay said the organization follows a “train a trainer” model and the non-profit partners with organizations and libraries to tailor a curriculum to different communities in the state.

“We’ve found that most people come to our programming looking for how to set up a Gmail account,” Venay said. “Some of us take it for granted, but many out there are unfamiliar with the digital space.”

TGH also offers training for entrepreneurs and business owners specifically to help in starting and growing a business.

Venay said the ultimate goal of Tech Goes Home is to inspire confidence in people who feel isolated due to inexperience with digital technology.

“We find that there are a number of owners who experiences differences of fear; they are concerned of feeling inadequate or not having the ability to create success like they might like to,” DeChiara said. “We are meeting people where they are in an effort to mitigate and eliminate those concerns. We are meeting people where they are in an effort to allow them to be themselves and grow.”

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