Grant secured by United Way will fund computer and digital literacy mentors for community

Posted 6 July 2021 at 4:01 pm

Press Release, United Way of Orleans County

MEDINA – The United Way of Orleans County is the recipient of a $364,130 implementation grant from the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo through its Moving Forward Together initiative.

The funding will be applied over three years to overcome digital literacy gaps by providing digital education and one-on-one community mentors across Orleans County (pop. 40,352). The grant will fund eight mentors this year and 16 by the end of 2022.

The aim of the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative is to bridge access and learning gaps for individuals with limited or no digital dexterity. This grant establishes a foundation for the Orleans United Way to provide support and services throughout the county.

Orleans County residents will soon have assistance applying for jobs, renewing driver’s licenses, making medical appointments, or submitting college applications. Local growers and small business owners will have digital support options to make their local operations more productive and resilient.

Community mentors will be available to seniors to teach them how to use a mobile phone, sign-up for email, and access online healthcare options.

“The Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative was established to address widespread societal gaps created by 20 years of rural digital divide,” said Dean Bellack, Executive Director of the United Way of Orleans County.  “The Moving Forward Together grant from the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund supports the initial phase of digital solutions – one-on-one community mentors, tech and cyber education.”

In 2020, the Orleans United Way formed the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative to study community needs resulting from the lack of reliable, high-speed broadband internet service options in the county. The Initiative, co-funded through the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund, identified communal barriers across 10 towns and four villages that included large gaps in internet availability, significant internet unreliability, economic barriers, and general lack of digital skills across the local population.

A 2021 Digital Literacy survey commissioned by the Initiative revealed those barriers were made worse by the pandemic, which substantially impacted local schooling, businesses, agriculture, health care, and work done by government offices and nonprofits. As the pandemic continued and citizens were unable to access or navigate online portals for essential services, businesses, and education, the Orleans United Way conducted focus groups to evaluate and prioritize solutions designed to largely improve digital literacy. A Community Mentors program was the first of 14 solutions developed to facilitate internet access and digital learning with programs and services more equitable and within reach across the county.

The Moving Forward Together grant will enable the Orleans United Way to embed tech coaches and basic internet education programs into local nonprofit groups, libraries, and community organizations. The grant will be administered by the Orleans United Way in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension Orleans County.

Robert Batt, Executive Director Cornell Cooperative Extension said, “The opportunity to provide digital literacy programs to Orleans County residents and people who work here will strengthen the community. Digital mentors will help people interact with each other, connect, shop, and learn in ways that, in the past, have been inaccessible or intimidating. This funding means there will be friendly, helping hands when you just can’t figure out the digital world.”

“In addition to addressing immediate needs in our community, the philanthropic community has come together through the Western New York COVID-19 Community Response Fund Moving Forward Together initiative to fund innovative collaborative solutions to long-standing systemic challenges,” said Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, President/CEO of Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “We commend this cross-sector community effort led by the United Way of Orleans County to identify and address critical barriers to digital access that have existed for a long time and were exacerbated by the pandemic. The dedicated partners in this effort have an exciting and innovative solution to addressing digital literacy through mentorship and assistance and we look forward to seeing the impact in Orleans County and beyond.”

“The continued support of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo will offer residents opportunities to update their online skills and actively engage in 21st century connectivity,” said Ken DeRoller, Orleans County legislator and United Way board member. “The WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund grant will also provide more resources for seniors, many of whom did not have the digital awareness or skills during the pandemic to access information about local testing sites or where and how to get Covid vaccines.”.

At the height of the pandemic, more than 1,000 seniors required assistance from the Orleans County Office for the Aging to register for Covid vaccines online “…because they don’t have internet or don’t know how to use the internet,” said Lynne Johnson, Orleans County Legislature Chairwoman.

Julie Christensen, Superintendent of Kendall Central School District said, “It is important to both improve internet access for our families and also to help all to learn how to use it effectively. Covid made this need a crisis, but even without Covid our attempts to connect families to school through technology is hampered.”

While Orleans County led the state a decade ago in identifying digital disparities facing upstate New York’s rural communities, the county has not received state aid or federal assistance to bridge $4.1 million in coverage gaps necessary to bring high-speed broadband services to all Orleans County residents and businesses.

“As the world moves more online, we need to respond in kind to increase digital literacy across Western New York. This grant is the product of excellent work done by the United Way and will allow Orleans County to shrink the digital divide,” said Congressman Chris Jacobs (NY-27). “I remain committed to expanding access to broadband in Orleans and other rural communities throughout WNY so more students, businesses, farmers, and seniors can access critical services.”

Cornell University defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” Pew Research Center studies found most rural counties in the United States have “insufficient broadband options to meet the needs of residents, businesses, and organizations.”

Research from Brookings reflects continuous learning pathways are not available to students who may reside in rural areas, citing implications that are “far-reaching for school-age children without internet access.” During the pandemic, 15 million school-age children were without home broadband access or a device.

“The mission of the United Way of Orleans County is to be a connector of people, ideas and resources that will make the community stronger,” Bellack emphasized. “The Moving Forward Together grant is an important first step to improving the daily lives of all those who live, work, and go to school in Orleans County.”