Pittsburgh Connect Hilltop Computer Center helps overcome the digital divide for youngsters

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Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in 2007, Nicolas Jaramillo introduced computers to children and adults who had never seen a hard drive, let alone powered one up.

Once he returned to the United States and landed a job as program director of the Pittsburgh Connect Hilltop Computer Center in 2010, Mr. Jaramillo, 28, thought he would finally have a chance to teach computer skills beyond the basics. The Louisiana native who holds a computer science degree from Iowa's Cornell College thought 8- to 14-year-olds taught in Allegheny County schools would surely be more equipped for concepts such as robotics and video game design than the disenfranchised groups he met during his tour of service.

As it turned out, the Hilltop neighborhood and El Salvador had more in common than he had hoped.

"When the kids came in it was reminiscent of my experience with the Peace Corps. It was, 'How do I turn this computer on?' I had no idea the disparities were this large," he said.

Two years later, despite the widespread digital divide, Mr. Jaramillo and the Hilltop Computer Center have much to celebrate. Some of the same children who struggled with introductory computer concepts a few years back will stand beside Google executives Saturday to unveil a touchscreen computer kiosk they helped to build from scratch.

The kiosk, a 40-inch monitor attached to rebuilt Gateway hard drives, came together last fall after three months of work. The youngest of the 15 students working on the project were mostly responsible for tearing apart and rebuilding hardware, while teenagers took on the task of installing software. The system runs Microsoft Windows 8 and Google's Android operating systems, which allows kids to play popular apps such as Angry Birds and Temple Run on the giant screen.

The idea of putting the students to work on a structured project arose not long after the center opened and staff members realized community youth had made it an after-school hub. The center, which was one of four to open with support of the YMCA of Pittsburgh in 2011, came as the result of a $748,000 grant received by the Neighborhood Learning Alliance's Pittsburgh Connects program, which was created to provide technology access to inner city neighborhoods.

The first few weeks, Mr. Jaramillo said between 20 to 30 youth would come to the center and watch "the same two YouTube videos over and over again." But once staff members introduced structured daily agendas that included computer classes and art workshops, as well as video game time, they started seeing notable changes.

"Working with the kids now, I can see they understand computer-based concepts better. They can set up email accounts, do Google searches," said Christian Freeberg, an AmeriCorps volunteer who has done community service with the center the past two years.

Nine-year-old Randy Hines of Urban Pathways Charter School is a good example of the progress. He said his favorite thing to do when he first came to the center two years ago was "back flips off the couches." Today, sitting at a computer playing games unsupervised, Randy can set up an email address, check homework and run searches for any game his heart desires.

Alexis Cunningham, a 13-year-old Gateway Middle School student, said the center has helped to bring technology into her life. When she first arrived at the center she didn't have a home computer and lacked the basic skills to use one. But after a few months of learning the basics, she was ready to show the rest of the community how much there was to learn. In a contest sponsored by the center, she won an Android tablet after bringing 26 new youth in to the program.

Although she didn't help out with the touchscreen kiosk project, she said just learning the basics will be a great help in the future.

"It can help a lot in college; I want to be a lawyer someday," she said.

Clarence Doe, a YMCA employee who took the lead in helping kids with the project, said keeping the youth on track was difficult at times, and the crew dropped from around 25 to 15 by the time it was complete. However, the skills gained by those who stuck it out gives them a perspective that is hard to come by in struggling neighborhoods.

The Hilltop area -- a cluster of 10 close-knit neighborhoods including Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, Carrick, St. Clair and Mount Oliver -- saw slightly higher foreclosure filings in 2010 than Pittsburgh overall. Neighborhoods such as St. Clair and Arlington Heights also saw drastic population decreases with the closing of large public housing developments over the past few years.

"Sometimes growing up in the inner city, nothing seems tangible. Some things feel like they're outside of your realm. But if something is in your environment and around you it can inspire you at some point," Mr. Doe said. "Those kids can say, 'I saw that at 10 years old. I'm not as intimidated to mess around with things and see if I can make things work.' "

Saturday's unveiling will correspond with a whirlwind week of community service that kicks off Tuesday. The week includes a session on Samsung tablets at the Mount Washington Senior Center, sharing cooking apps at the Arlington-based Kaufman Center's food pantry, working with Bhutanese refugees at the Jewish Health Services center, and taking laptops to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Latino Center on the South Side to teach basic skills. On Saturday the center will also host Tech Day, where volunteers provide free computer repairs for area residents, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call Nicolas Jaramillo at 412-389-4292.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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