The Power of Two, Computers4Kids Mentoring

by local writer and Charlottesville mom Melanie G. Snyder

What do an at-home Mom, a realtor, a UVA grad student, a retired business executive, an attorney and an insurance claims adjuster have in common? All of them are mentors to area youth through the Computers4Kids program.

Computers4Kids, or C4K as it is affectionately called by those who are involved, provides computer training, one-to-one mentoring and free home computers to Charlottesville and Albemarle County seventh- through twelfth-graders who otherwise may not have access to these resources.

Since its founding in 1999, C4K has trained over 200 youth at the C4K Learning Lab on Grove Street in Charlottesville, and they have distributed hundreds of free computers. Funded by a US Department of Commerce Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grant, local grants and generous corporate and individual donations, C4K is committed to “opening windows into the 21st century”.

While there are other computer re-distribution programs across the country, meant to address the “digital divide”, C4K goes well beyond just giving kids training and free computers. It is the mentoring component of C4K’s program that provides the greatest benefit – not just to the youth in the program, but to their mentors and to the community as well.

C4K: What’s In It For Mentors?

Much has been written about the benefits of mentoring to the youth being mentored. But talk to any C4K mentor and they will tell you how the experience has changed their own life.

“For a mentor to see a student gain the belief that ‘I can do this’ is incredibly powerful and positive,” says Michelle Hilgart, who is now mentoring her second C4K student. She adds, “Every week when we meet, I learn something new along with my student.” New learnings for mentors range from specific computer skills that mentor and student may learn together at a C4K workshop, to better understanding of the issues facing today’s youth. Some mentors talk about the opportunity mentoring a teen has given them to “revisit” and make sense of their own teenage years, often gaining valuable insight about their own past. And for those who deal with youth in other settings, as parent, teacher or in another role, the learnings gained from mentoring a teen one-to-one have helped them to better understand the other young people in their lives. Finally, the sense of making a difference that comes from helping someone else is supremely powerful. It’s as the old adage says, “If you help someone up the hill, you get closer to the top yourself.”

“It’s about learning to give more than you take,” says Nick Morawitz, a mentor with C4K for over a year.

At a quarterly C4K Mentoring Roundtable, C4K mentors fill a large conference room to share stories, exchange ideas, and discuss challenges and opportunities. They talk about how to find projects that will excite and motivate their students. Several mentors share information on projects their students have done and offer to lend a hand to any other mentor who is interested in doing a similar project with their student. One mentor asks the group for opinions on asking students to work on projects between mentoring sessions. Is it too much like assigning “homework”? A lively discussion follows.

Another mentor is looking for ideas about how to deal with a student with ADD. “He just clicks away, not reading what’s on the screen,” says his mentor. Turns out the click-happy student accidentally placed a bid on a gas-powered motorscooter on eBay when his mentor stepped out of the room. “He thought he was just LOOKING at the scooter!” says the mentor with a laugh. “Needless to say, Think Before You Click has become our new motto!” The mentors share a good laugh. It is obvious that these mentors care deeply about their role.

One-to-One Attention for C4K Students

“The mentoring is one-to-one by design,” says Kala Somerville, Executive Director for C4K. “This is one of the few places for many of these kids where they are the sole focus of attention.”

That one-to-one design enables strong relationships to form between the C4K mentors and their students. Over a period of at least nine months, mentor and student meet for at least an hour a week. The growth and change that mentors witness in their students during this time can be extraordinary. The ages of the students is part of it – anyone who works with kids will tell you that the middle school and early high school years are a time of profound change for all young people. But for the C4K students, there are other more fundamental and important changes.

“The fact that my student knew I would be there every week taught him that there are people that he can count on,” says Morawitz.

The students learn that they need to be accountable as well. At the Mentors Roundtable, mentors share ideas about what to do when their student doesn’t show up for a scheduled mentoring session. It’s a balancing act for mentors as they are neither parent nor disciplinarian, teacher nor counselor.

“We want C4K to be a friendly, non-guilt-ridden place,” says Somerville. Yet there are specific rules that the C4K staff enforce with the students to teach them responsibility and accountability to their mentors and to the program.

Teaching youth to be responsible and accountable will certainly reap future benefits as they become adults. In order to “graduate” from the C4K program, the students must complete all required computer training and meet with their mentor for at least an hour per week for a minimum of nine months. These requirements help teach them to stay focused on a goal (completing the C4K program), and, in the process, they learn valuable life lessons about commitment and responsibility.

Through the fun activities carried out by mentors and their students, the students discover a love of learning which then carries over into school and other endeavors. As student Jalil puts it, “Computer4kids is really a good place to learn about computers . . . I love to come here and learn.”

And the technology skills the youth learn through the C4K program will make them valued members of the local workforce in years to come. C4K has “graduated” nearly sixty youth already – youth who are well prepared with the kinds of technology skills they need to get into and succeed in college.

In fact, all of the C4K graduates who finished high school are now in college. Those C4K grads credit the program with improving their grades, inspiring them to work hard and opening up a world of possibilities they had never imagined. “The excellent training I got at C4K is even more important now that I’m in college,” says Nyshae Carter, a second year biology major at Virginia Union University. Nyshae plans to pursue both Master’s and Doctoral degrees in biology. “I return to [C4K] frequently to encourage the kids there to learn . . . improve their grades . . . and find their life’s work,” she says.

C4K grad Jamie Patterson is headed to landscape architecture school. Internet explorations with her mentor at C4K, “opened up the wide world of landscaping for me – the field I had dreamed about as a child,” says Patterson.

And Sheila Sellars says, “The C4K training and mentoring improved my grade point average so much that I was able to get advanced standing at the college of my choice.” Sheila is studying biology at North Carolina A&T and then is headed for medical school. All of them express their desires to see other students get the mentoring, training and encouragement they received from C4K.

C4K Benefits the Albemarle/Charlottesville Community

Finally, the C4K program provides a unique set of benefits to our community. Kala Somerville describes it best.

“C4K brings together a very diverse group of people from our community who otherwise might never have had the opportunity to interact,” she says.

In fact, the C4K Mission Statement explicitly addresses this goal, stating that their mission is achieved by . . . “Using a shared interest in technology and a belief in the power of knowledge in a child to bring together in new ways individuals, businesses and organizations from across our community.”

Peek into the C4K lab on any given day and you’ll see this mission in action:
* a teen recently immigrated from Afghanistan modifies digital photographs with a project manager from a large publishing company;
* a doctoral student from UVA and a young African girl type “journal entries” and scan photos to make a memory book of the girls life in America;
* a successful business executive and a teen struggling to keep her grades high enough to pass 8th grade explore careers and salaries online, then create a household budget showing how salaries get spent on housing, food, clothing, transportation and “extras.”
Research from the National Mentoring Partnership (www.mentoring.org) cites this sort of collaboration between diverse people in a community as one of the most important societal benefits a mentoring program could possibly provide.

Their website describes it this way: “Mentoring can create a common fabric in communities-a breaking down of the artificial we-them distinctions between more and less privileged members of society.”

The “common fabric” that is being woven at Computers4Kids will benefit our youth, mentors and our community for years to come.

Become a C4K Mentor! Mentoring at C4K isn’t just for technology whizzes nor for those who are experienced at working with youth. If you want to explore opportunities to learn and contribute by being a C4K mentor, contact Kala Somerville at (434) 817-1121 or check out the mentoring information on their website at http://www.computers4kids.net/mentor/mentor.php

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