Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Honeymoon Continues 

A thirty-something couple volunteered during the day yesterday at the Arena Community Technology Center. It was something they decided to do together to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Clearly, they were still on their on the honeymoon. With three children (ages 6, 5, and 1) at home, they lingered at the center longer than planned because the husband of the couple chose to assist one more member of the evacuee community. His last evacuee client entered the Arena CTC as they were preparing to head home to The Woodlands (a planned community north of Houston) to be with their children for the evening. It was one of several opportunities they had to assist and empower those whose computer skills were limited.

With care and compassion nurtured by their love for each other they assisted evacuees throughout the day. It was a joy to watch them skillfully use the tools of technology while they sat with various evacuee clients experiencing both joy as well as heartache. They worked together and one of their clients for the day was a family. The family was looking for their father. Since becoming residents of the Astrodome more than two weeks before, they had come first to the ACT Center in the Astrodome as well as the Arena CTC to register themselves as survivors and then to regularly check on the status of the father. I was aware of the family because a day earlier one of our volunteers informed that she had spoken with a social worker in the Coroners office. A message to call the social worker was left for the family. Yesterday, our honeymoon couple sat with this family of adult children as they received the message to make the call. From a phone at the Arena CTC they made the call and received the message that their father had been hospitalized in a New Orleans hospital and later died while there. It was not the news they wished to hear. But, hearing the news with the honeymoon couple made it easier.

Many technology solutions have been developed since the devastation of Katrina. Some are incredibly sophisticated. But the application we have found most useful is very simple. The "Family Messages" tool allows individuals, families and loved ones in disparate previously unknown places to leave messages for each other. Family messages include everything from "I'm OK" to "call me at XYZ shelter." Most members of the evacuee community that we have worked with do not have email addresses and have limited computer skills. Over time in multiple visits we have used simple tools together to both find family members and empower evacuees with new skills for living in today's world. Many evacuees now have email addresses. Many are still learning how to skillfully use a mouse. But their skills are improving as they discover new ways to communicate with each other in the digital world. This is empowerment.

In my opinion, empowerment is one of the key roles of community technology centers (CTCs). The Arena CTC is but one of many CTCs across Houston and across the world. ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) is taken for granted by many of us who lived connected to the digital world by our cell phones, wireless Internet connections and other tools. CTCs bring the tools of technology into low-income and under-resourced communities. CTCs empower their clients by teaching them the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to use those tools. For more about community technology centers go to www.ctcnet.org or www.americaconnects.net.

Yes, our work is about empowerment. But it is also about sitting with people in the joy of new discoveries and with those who experience heart-wrenching grief. The honeymoon couple reminded us yesterday that relationships must be nurtured and celebrated. The tools of technology have been helping us to do that with thousands of members of the evacuee community. Thanks to each of you who have made this possible.

Will Reed

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