Instead of wringing their collective hands over the growing digital divide in Riverside, Calif., and Riverside County, city and county leaders are putting PCs in homes.

In fact, a program started last August helped approximately 145 low-income households get PCs by Christmas. The Riverside Computer Investment Program (RCIP) is a public/private partnership sponsored by the city, Riverside Countys Credit Union, Jaguar Computers and the Riverside Community On-Line (RCOL) project.

Not Just a Handout

RCOLs overall goal is to transform Riverside into a smart community, said Steve Berry, RCOLs executive director. But because just having a PC isnt enough, RCIP requires applicants to go through a basic computer-training course before obtaining a PC. Three computer centers -- the Riverside Cybrary, the Arlanza Computer Center and the Center for Virtual Research, located at the University of California, Riverside -- train RCIP applicants for free.

RCOL has raised approximately $20,000 to help subsidize qualified low-income families who apply for loans from Riverside Countys Credit Union to purchase the PCs. The subsidy, which is $225 per family, helps keep monthly payments below $20, and, most importantly, the credit union finances the loans at reduced interest rates and waives credit-history requirements to help the families obtain loans, said Berry.

Applicants can purchase either a brand-new computer system or a reconditioned system, and their monthly payments include all taxes, fees and interest plus 90 days worth of bilingual tech support over the telephone.

Families choosing new computer systems get a one-year warranty on parts and labor, and reconditioned systems come with a 90-day warranty on parts and labor. In addition, both options include free Internet access.

Berry said RCIP is targeted to students in public schools who range from nine years old to 17 years old. "We also hold the students accountable to train their brothers, sisters and parents," he added. "Its about workforce development. A lot of these families have businesses, so they can get training on how to run their businesses out of their home."

The program just ordered 35 more computer systems and, ultimately, wants to get 500 PCs into the homes of low-income families.

To qualify for RCIP, applicants must:

* be enrolled in a public school;

* receive the free or reduced school lunch program;

* have a passing GPA or agree to bring up their GPA to a passing level;

* have a good attendance record;

* have been residing in Riverside for a minimum of six months; and

* complete a basic computer course at one of the three computer-training centers.

"No matter how poor these families are or whether theyre first generation or second generation, they realize that their children must have technology to succeed in the future," Berry said. "Thats one of the reasons theyre buying these computers and investing in their kids futures."

The Future Is Now

Lisa Leggettes family received their computer right before Christmas, she said. The mother of three added that the timing was right because her childrens final exams were right around the corner.

"The kids have been able to do their projects and essays over the Christmas break," she said. "My son was able to research some things; he needed some famous quotes. Theyve been able to use the computer for school. They havent been able to do that in the past, and they get better grades."