Philanthropic Effort Aims To Help Close ‘Digital Divide’

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Community centers that provide low-income families access to computers and the Internet could receive support over the next few years from several major technology companies and nonprofit organizations, under an initiative unveiled here last week.

The McLean, Va.-based Case Foundation, the initiative’s largest financial backer, will donate $10 million to the effort, including $5 million in grants to as many as 5,000 community technology programs. Recipients could include after-school technology labs at schools, as well as other centers, such as local YMCAs, that offer similar programs.

The effort, known as PowerUP, aims to start a national drive to put all Americans online, said Steve Case, the foundation’s co-founder and also the chairman and chief executive of America Online Inc., the nation’s largest Internet-service provider.

"The Internet is growing explosively. But millions of people who are not connected are left out," Mr. Case said.

The largest proportions of those have-not families are at the lowest income levels, he said, citing data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce.

Wendy Lader, a senior policy analyst for the telecommunications agency, said PowerUP joins several other initiatives that are addressing the "digital divide" between rich and poor. "There is definitely a groundswell to partner," she said.

In other partnerships, announced last summer, AT&T Corp. promised $1.4 million to programs that provide technology education to economically disadvantaged communities, and 3Com Corp. pledged $1 million in networking products and services to similar programs in 10 U.S. cities.

Federal support is also available, through the Department of Education’s Community Technology Center grant program, which awarded $9.9 million to 40 centers this year, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants. ("U.S. Ed. Dept. Launches Grant Program for Technology Centers," Oct. 6, 1999.)

Supporting Children

Powerup will support existing, successful community-based centers and create new centers to serve disadvantaged communities, Mr. Case said. AOL has pledged to donate up to 100,000 membership accounts to participating centers.

Other partners will provide equipment and manpower.

Ted Waitt, the chairman and chief executive of computer manufacturer Gateway Computers Inc., said that over the next three years the Waitt Family Foundation would donate up to 50,000 computers and other devices that can surf the Internet.

"We’re creating the environment and support children need to get ahead in life," Mr. Waitt said.

To address the staffing needs of the centers—which often find it difficult to hire enough people to maintain services and be mentors to young people—part of the Case Foundation money will underwrite the stipends and other costs of bringing in AmeriCorps vista employees to work there full time. They will be trained by the national YMCA.

Organizers said the PowerUP centers would give young people a positive activity outside of school hours. "It will get kids off the street corners" and onto the Internet, retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who is on the PowerUP board of directors, said at the press conference.

PowerUP, which is based in Scott’s Valley, Calif., will consult the Education Department to find sound educational resources online. Computers will reach the Internet through an AOL-designed World Wide Web page, which will be equipped with filters to limit children’s exposure to inappropriate content.

At least 250 centers nationwide are expected to be participating in the initiative by next November. PowerUP will also create its own centers. Four PowerUP sites opened this fall, in a housing complex in Washington; a community center in Alexandria, Va.; an elementary school in San Jose; and a middle school in Seattle.

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 6

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Philanthropic Effort Aims To Help Close ‘Digital Divide’
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