First group of mentors trained to help bridge Digital Divide in Orleans

Photos by Ginny Kropf: The first class of mentors for Orleans County’s Digital Divide initiative pose with program leaders during the first training session last week. From left are volunteers Barb Dunham, Ann McElwee, Michelle Figueroa, training leaders from Can Code Lee McPeter and Rachel Sheridan, volunteers Pamela Denson, Jeanette Worsley and Jessica Sutch and program coordinator from Cooperative Extension, Katie Leach.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 15 November 2021 at 11:09 am

KNOWLESVILLE – Volunteers training to be mentors in the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative underwent their first of two days of training Wednesday at Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds.

The initiative, funded by a $364,000 grant from the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, will provide digital education and one-on-one mentors across Orleans County. The grant is being administered by United Way of Orleans County.

“The Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative was established to address widespread societal gaps created by 20 years of rural digital divide,” said Dean Bellack, director of United Way which led the way in applying for the grant.

Lee McPeter with Can Code leads the first training session at Cooperative Extension for mentors in Orleans County’s Digital Divide initiative.

Robert Batt, director of Orleans County Cornell Cooperative Extension, was instrumental in applying for this grant, with help from Nyla Gaylord, fundraising coordinator at United Way, and Mary Beth Debus, president of Program Savvy in Buffalo, according to Bellack.

The first step in the process was to contract with Can Code, a company which has developed software career training programs for workforces, to lead in the training of mentors. Nine volunteers from various agencies in Orleans County are currently going through the training process, led by Lee McPeter, career services adviser, and Rachel Sheridan, director of finance and administration. Their ultimate goal is to reach 2,000 people, one-on-one, or in small groups by the end of 2023, thereby increasing digital literacy in Orleans County.

Katie Leach from Cooperative Extension was hired as designated coordinator of the Digital Literacy Initiative.

The two-day training of mentors will teach them all aspects of computers, so they can go out and help individuals use their devices in all areas of their life, such as how to buy a computer, how to access information online, setting up accounts, sending e-mails and using social media safely.

Dean Bellack, director of United Way of Orleans County, chats during a lunch break with Katie Leach from Cooperative Extension, who has been designated as coordinator of the mentors for the Digital Divide initiative.

This first group of volunteers come from Community Action, OCALS, Job Development, Office for the Aging and Hoag Library.

Over the next couple of years, Bellack said they have budgeted $30,000 to advertise, by billboards, a direct mail campaign and paid ads to inform the entire county about the services provided by the Digital Divide Initiative grant. He said their goal is to have 2,000 to 3,000 people in the community continuing to train groups.

“The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo believes in digital literacy education,” Bellack said. “A large part of the population in total do not have basic digital literacy skills. More people are shopping online, e-mailing and using social media. Everything has gone from print media to online – all over the United States. These mentors are helping us raise digital literacy. Orleans County is actually the leading county in New York state on educating the public with digital literacy skills. We’re way ahead of the curve, and the credit goes back to Robert Batt.”

Katie Leach, who has a teaching degree in English as an additional language, has been hired to coordinate the program and develop protocol. She will work out of Cooperative Extension, and develop extra curriculum to add to the Can Code training program.

“This will help people, personally and professionally,” Leach said. “I haven’t been so excited in years. I really feel I can give to my community.”

Robert Batt, director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who wrote the grant to support Orleans County’s Digital Divide initiative, checks his notes during the first mentor training session at Cooperative Extension last week. The second training, headed by Mary Beth Debus, will take place Tuesday.

Bellack said mentors are strictly volunteer, but their organization gets a small compensation.

All mentors get a laptop and Chromebooks like children use, so parents can learn how to help them do their homework.

Debus, a professional consultant, who helped organize the program from the start, will lead the next training session on Tuesday.

“In time, this will result in huge benefits to the community and improve a lot of people’s lives,” Bellack said.

Volunteers interested in more information or being mentors for this program are urged to contact Leach at (585) 798-4265, Ext. 146 or e-mail her at