Plugged in . . . to the future
In the heart of tobacco country, a United Methodist church is helping create a new economic future by providing adult computer training. Some members weren’t sure, but most agreed: It’s exactly what the church should be doing.
April 13, 2010 | In the 18th century, John Wesley encouraged the opening of Sunday schools to teach illiterate youth. Early in the 21st century, Wesley’s spiritual heirs are continuing his passion for education, reshaping it in remarkable new ways in rural eastern North Carolina.
In Greene County, N.C., Calvary Memorial United Methodist Church is helping eliminate a new form of illiteracy -- computer illiteracy.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Greene County Plugged In -- an innovative program created by the church and others -- provides free computer lessons at the county’s senior citizen center in Snow Hill, the county seat. And in a twist that Wesley might find as surprising as the technology, the teachers are young people and the students, their elders. Teenagers trained in computer instruction teach senior citizens during the two weekday sessions. In the winter, they also offer computer guidance to local farmers.
Rosa Williams, 64, is a regular at the training sessions. A Greene County native, she spent her working life in a shirt factory and an electrical-fuse plant and was long baffled by computers. Thanks to the program, she is now at ease with them -- in fact, quite adept.
“I love working with computers,” said Williams, who uses the sessions to e-mail her children and surf the Web. In a recent session she watched a fashion video as she shopped for a dress.
“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “I didn’t even know how to turn a computer on. I didn’t have e-mail.” Although Williams doesn’t yet have her own computer, she has been giving her children plenty of hints.
Located in Snow Hill, Calvary Memorial started Greene County Plugged In in 2005 with grants from The Duke Endowment. Some of the young teachers are church members, but the program is open to all Greene County residents. The county government provides teaching space and helps with the program’s administration.
Misty Chase is project director of Beyond Tobacco, a Greene County initiative to diversify and modernize the local economy, which has long depended on tobacco farming. She said the church-sponsored program is helping the county make that transition by opening the world of computers to older residents.
“We’ve had seniors that were scared to death of computers when they first started,” she said. “Now they own their own computers. They can communicate with their family, share photos, read the newspaper. It’s improved their quality of life.”
The young people who teach the sessions are known as “Digital Connectors” or DCs. They are trained in groups of about 20 during a summer computer camp and work throughout the year for an hourly stipend ranging from $7 to $13 per hour. The program has produced more than 100 DCs and provided computer training for more than 600 adults in the county of 21,000 people.
Melinda Suit, 19, a student at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., is in her third year as a DC. An aspiring teacher, she said the program benefits the young people as much as the senior citizens.
“It helps us learn responsibility at a young age and how to communicate with people older than us,” she said. “Most young people are afraid to talk to older people. But you get so used to seeing them and they talk to you just like they know you.”
Another DC, Abbey Dail, 17, a senior at Greene County Central High School, said teaching adults takes patience but is more fulfilling than teaching her contemporaries.
“They just seem like they’re more excited to learn than someone my own age,” Dail said.
Calvary Memorial used an initial $25,000 grant from The Duke Endowment to buy the program’s 25 laptop computers and has since renewed the grant three times. The church also sponsored the summer training camps for the Digital Connectors and established a wireless hot spot at its fellowship hall. Even when the hall is closed, the public can come to the adjacent parking lot and get online for free. The county is currently looking for funding to continue the program when the final installment of the grant runs out later this year.
After the flood
Calvary Memorial was prompted to sponsor Plugged In by two related developments. One, Greene County residents realized more and more that they lagged behind the state’s urban areas in computer skills and Internet access and needed to take action to bridge that gap. Two, the 300-member church became increasingly aware that it needed to play a direct role in Greene County’s economic development.
That latter need became obvious to church members in the devastating floods that covered eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. In the immediate aftermath, Calvary Memorial was one of the few facilities still on dry land and still with electricity. It became the center of an interfaith relief effort that raised $1 million.