Conquering computers

Free YMCA course gives senior citizens confidence and training to cross the digital divide

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When Oak Park resident George Soil took his complimentary computer class at the West Cook YMCA, the senior citizen was beginning to ponder the idea of penning his professional memoirs. He surmised that learning how to write, edit and move paragraphs around on a computer would help.

Likewise, YMCA member Martha Davis, 70, said she came in with husband Eugene, 77, to face their fear of e-mailing and surfing the Internet in a group environment without their adult children, who tried to introduce their parents to the computer this past spring.

"He showed us exactly how to turn the computer on, use the mouse and open e-mails. Doing everything with a group was much easier for us," she says.

And so has been the case for many others. The Charter One Computer Learning Center debuted in 2006 with grant funding. Since then, numerous senior citizens, 62 and older, have crossed the digital divide with six hours of free skills-building lessons in Microsoft Word. YMCA single-room occupancy residents are also brushing up their keystrokes and surfing the Net to find jobs.

Now, says Barbara Usmial, senior program executive at the local YMCA, the organization offers use of its computers to those with YMCA memberships and those without. Increased traffic is keeping the eight Dell computers whirring and the center's coordinator, Bob Edwards, and his corps of volunteers busy answering questions and overseeing the room's use.

"Our ability to keep this open is dependent on who will provide volunteer hours to monitor it," says Edwards. "I'm always looking for more volunteers, however, everyone must complete an application, undergo a background check, and receive training in child abuse prevention, which is offered on-site."

Surfing seniors

Having members and residents approach Edwards with accolades about the new service is now common. Leonard Brock, a YMCA resident since November, says he has used the computer lab for job searches and more. Brock also volunteers as a monitor in the Charter One Computer Learning Center once a week, he says.

It's not just senior citizens using the lab, though. Adult members tend to drop by for quick electronic fixes. And kids in the after-school program receive tutoring in the lab and can log on for research and word processing. In the summer, Edwards conducts a computer camp for year-long members of the Teen Leaders Club. But in keeping with YMCA rules, children are not allowed to access social networking sites such as MySpace or use the computers for gaming, Edwards says.

This fall, Edwards plans to work with another instructor to stage more in-depth for-pay classes in word processing, PowerPoint and Excel.

"The biggest obstacle for most seniors might just be as simple as the course of their lives," Edwards says, "that in they have never been in a position to use a computer on a regular basis, so they don't. Many of them come in totally intimidated, but when they leave, my objective is to make them comfortable with the technology, which is the first step."

-Deb Quantock McCarey

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