Difference Maker

Deb Socia helps the disadvantaged learn essential computer skills

Boston-based Tech Goes Home provides computer training for inner-city students, the very poor, those with disabilities, seniors, and immigrants.

By , Correspondent

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    Deb Socia, executive director of Tech Goes Home, is seen at a class at The Salvation Army Children’s Learning Center in Boston.
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Anyone looking for a job these days knows that the search is nearly all done online, from finding openings to submitting an application and résumé. Student research projects and scholarship applications have moved online, too.

But what if your only access to a computer or the Internet is for a half-hour at a school or public library? What if you don’t even have an e-mail account?

Those without Internet access (often people who are very poor) are finding it increasingly difficult to undertake essential everyday tasks like these.

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An estimated 60 million people in the United States live without access to a home computer or the Internet, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. And an estimated 40 million people have access only to a smart phone, which is not the easiest way to fill out a job application or research and write a school paper.

Enter Deb Socia, a lifelong educator and former principal who has become a technology champion for the very poor, those with disabilities, seniors, and immigrants. Her goal is to help them gain access to and understand how to use the Internet – two things that most people take for granted.

Ms. Socia is the driving force behind Tech Goes Home, a program administered by OpenAirBoston, a nonprofit group that helps give Boston residents the tools, training, and access needed to successfully go online.

Tech Goes Home connects Boston residents who make $20,000 a year or less and who may have never sent an e-mail before with schools, community programs, and government agencies. Socia and her small team also raise funds and find volunteers to help these residents learn how to send e-mails, search for housing and jobs, and create and send digital résumés.

These are critical skills in a world where some 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies – including huge employers such as Wal-Mart and Target – only accept online applications.

The program also includes 15 hours of hands-on classroom training and a new small, inexpensive laptop or other mobile device (available for a $50 co-payment). For those who are eligible, the program provides access to low-cost home Internet service, too.

Participants leave the program changed: Retirees are able to see their grandchildren via a Skype video call for the first time, parents who have been out of work for years find jobs, and members of communities become better connected with each other.

Carl Baty asked to be included in the program when he worked at a halfway house helping with some of the toughest cases. Socia and her crew sprang into action, and soon Mr. Baty and four of the nine men living in the house were taking the free class.

Each man saw major shifts in his life, Baty says.

Baty had wanted to start his own business helping people recovering from addiction get back on their feet. “I was two years out of a 47-year addiction and nobody, nobody wanted to talk to me about anything,” he says.

But Tech Goes Home did. Baty took the small-business class and learned how to create a Facebook page that helped his business, called Rounding the Bases, get on its feet. “Every time I post something on Facebook,” Baty says, “Deb is always, always the first one to see it and post something. How does she do that?” Her involvement still touches him.

Socia, who is just 4 feet, 11 inches tall and comes from a large Portuguese-American family in New Bedford, Mass., is not known for sitting still for long. She has raised two boys with special needs, reads about five books a week, sits on two nonprofit boards, travels to Washington to petition lawmakers, volunteers regularly at a senior center (where she serves a proper English tea), is passionate about fairness in education – and expects results.

“We don’t let logistics get in the way around here,” says her colleague, Dan Noyes, who shares an office with Socia, with a playful smile.

“There is a solution for every problem,” Socia says matter-of-factly. “The question is, What does it look like?”

Take, for example, the way Socia became involved with Tech Goes Home. About a decade ago she took on the job of principal at a new school in Dorchester, an economically challenged Boston neighborhood. The budget constraints were so severe that she was not permitted to hire any staff until July, even though the doors of the school were to open in September.

When the school year got under way, it was clear that some students were at a serious disadvantage.

“If you have two children who are both in AP [advanced placement] history, both equally talented, equally motivated, and equally interested,” she explains, “and this child has access [to the Internet] at home and this child doesn’t, and they get an assignment today to do some research, how can you possibly ... judge them the same way?”

And that, Socia says, was why she got involved. “The inherent unfairness ... is really what pushed me to want to focus on this work,” she says.

Despite the naysaying of skeptics and the challenge of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, she was determined that her students would all have their own computers. Socia and her team at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School reached out to Tech Goes Home, which at the time was helping supply students in low-income areas with refurbished desktop computers, while also teaching rudimentary computer skills to adults.

Socia saw the potential in Tech Goes Home, and began fundraising to revamp the program to better suit her school’s needs. The effort included finding funds to turn her school into the first urban middle school in the state to ensure that every student had a computer and understood how to use it.

Her students’ grades went up. To the surprise of some observers, no students lost their computers. On top of that, more than 85 percent of the students who completed the 15-hour program began regularly using their computer to do homework, Socia says.

“But the greatest thing as an educator,” she says, “was the increase in first-time parent participation at school.”  

The involvement of parents can greatly help a child’s performance in school, Socia says. Before the program started training parents and children in how to use computers, she says, about 200 parents would attend her school’s open houses. After the program started, she began to see 1,000 or more parents showing up.

Almost 70 percent of the parents who enrolled in the program had never before participated in any school activities with their children. For 80 percent of the participating Spanish-speaking parents it was the first time they had attended a school event.

Socia was so successful that the city of Boston asked her to revamp the entire Tech Goes Home program. She helped write a federal grant application and, after seven years as school principal, left to join Tech Goes Home as executive director.

The year before she took over, Tech Goes Home had helped train some 600 residents (a third of them from her school). In the four years since, she and her team – two full-time staff members and one AmeriCorps volunteer – have transformed and broadened the program: Today, more than 10,000 families have benefited from it.

Socia has also helped expand Tech Goes Home partnerships beyond schools and families to other community institutions, such as libraries, community centers, and housing associations. At these the program reaches new immigrants, disabled people, and seniors.

“We changed the program entirely so that it became about ‘how do you help someone improve their quality of life?’ ” Socia says.

“How do we help people find resources that support them? How do we help them learn something new that could help their job prospects? How do we help them save money? How do we help them find culturally relevant, fun activities?”

Socia remains the driving force behind Tech Goes Home, Mr. Noyes says.

“She’s never letting us settle for the status quo, even if the status quo is good,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Well, let’s make it a bit better – but also be realistic.’ ”

• To learn more about Tech Goes Home, visit http://www.techgoeshome.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that provide job skills training or other aid to help lift people out of poverty worldwide:

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in rural Ghana. Take action: Help a girl become computer literate.

Nepal Youth Foundation brings hope to destitute children in Nepal by providing education, housing, medical care, and support. Take action: Rescue girls from bonded servitude.

Give A Day Global offers volunteer opportunities that help underprivileged women through education, microfinance loans, and more. Take action: Help women with microfinance loans in Kenya.

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