Education & Workforce Development and Technology

Helping seniors get online: Teen-founded organization teaches computer literacy

May 9, 2005

Philip Ealy became quite deft at pounding the keys of his manual typewriter while processing orders during a career in the construction industry. But when his son gave him a laptop, the gap in technology was too great to overcome.

So the 88-year-old resident of Manor Care at Summertrace in Carmel enrolled in a computer class at the independent living facility offered by an upstart not-for-profit known as Senior Connects.

The thrust of Senior Connects' mission-to promote computer literacy among central Indiana's aging population-is supported by the local elder care community. But the organization is garnering national acclaim as well, thanks to its teen-age founder, Daniel Kent.

The 16-year-old sophomore at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School launched Senior Connects while finishing the eighth grade, an age when most adolescents are preoccupied with video games or skateboards.

Kent's uncanny intellect earned him a trip to the Big Apple in April to collect a $5,000 scholarship and a $5,000 grant from New York-based Do Something. The youth-oriented association presented Kent and eight colleagues with its Brick Award, dubbed by CNN as the Oscars of youth service. Earlier this month, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to collect a $10,000 scholarship as a winner of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

Kent and his brood of volunteers visit facilities on Saturday afternoons to offer a full entree of computer classes. They also bring computers that have been donated to the organization and refurbished by the youngsters. Senior Connects also receives some corporate and private funding.

Senior Connects has brought Internet access to roughly 70 facilities in the central Indiana region and has taught computer courses to more than 150 seniors, including Ealy.

"I got a lot out of it," he said. "The kids do a beautiful job, and they're very patient with the older people."

Ealy's education included learning how to send and receive e-mail, which interests a lot of seniors, Kent said.

"We teach everything from word processing to browsing the Internet and sending e-mails," he said. "They most enjoy receiving e-mails from their family, especially [from] their grandchildren, if they have any."

The Carmel teen's idea for Senior Connects sprang from his time as an instructional aide in a computer class at the Carmel Clay Public Library. Following one session, a participant relayed to Kent how much he enjoyed the course and how he had a friend at a retirement home who wanted to learn about computers to communicate with his grandchildren.

Senior Connects since has recruited student volunteers who hail from several Indianapolis-area schools, including private institutions such as Brebeuf, The Orchard School and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. North Central High School and University High School in Carmel are both considering becoming a part of Senior Connects, Kent said.

Schools in Pike and Warren townships are using methods instituted by the notfor-profit to teach seniors computer skills in those areas of the city. Senior Connects wants to offer its lesson plans to schools worldwide, because computer literacy for senior citizens is a global issue, Kent said.

The number of seniors using computers, though, continues to grow as the nation's population ages. A February 2004 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Network found 22 percent of Americans age 65 and older have Internet access, up from 15 percent in 2000. The number translates to 8 million people, according to the study.

Julie Boone, director of resident services at the Forum at the Crossing center, can vouch for the statistics. Sixteen years ago, when she began working at the facility, few residents had computers. Now, more new arrivals are packing PCs with them. Those who don't have computers can learn on the few furnished by the facility that have been refurbished by Senior Connects.

The Forum at the Crossing was the first independent- or assisted-living center to partner with Senior Connects.

"He's always been so grateful that we gave him a chance," Boone said of Kent. "But we've always been grateful for his help."

The local Older Adult Services and Information Systems organization, known as OASIS, has computer labs at Glendale and Washington Square malls and has offered classes for five years. Melony Barney, director of the OASIS computer lab, said the organization began offering the courses because older adults generally feel more comfortable if they're in a class with those of similar age.

Many want to surf the Internet to research medications, and to correspond with family through e-mail, Barney said.

While seniors have become more acclimated to computers, they're also discovering all is not perfect in the world of technology.

Ealy at Manor Care, for instance, can still use the computers at the facility. But he gave his laptop to a grandson because he said his fingers were too big for the keys.
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