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New Initiative Aims to Close San Antonio's Digital Divide

The San Antonio Food Bank has teamed up with the San Antonio Public Library, nonprofit Feeding Texas and ISP Google Fiber to spearhead "Get Connected!," an effort to bolster digital literacy rates.

(TNS) — Hunched over the keyboard of a San Antonio Public Library laptop, Maria Peña eyed the screen. Her index finger hopped from letter to letter as she entered a URL into the address bar.

Then she seemed to hesitate.

What next?

The cursor flickered in and out of sight. Like Peña, it was awaiting further instructions.

The San Antonio Food Bank has teamed up with the San Antonio Public Library, nonprofit Feeding Texas and the internet service provider Google Fiber to spearhead "Get Connected!," an effort to bolster digital literacy rates. The partners are distributing free refurbished laptops, holding monthly dual-language classes on basic computer skills and raising awareness of internet assistance programs. Such programs offer free or discounted internet access to low-income families.

Peña, 71, was one of about 18 older adults who attended the inaugural class at 9 a.m. Thursday. Sitting at a desk in an airy conference room on the second floor of the food bank's Enrique M. Barrera Parkway headquarters, Peña described herself as "not familiar with computers at all" as she struggled to turn on her black Dell. However, the recent retiree was eager to build on what little knowledge she possessed.

She only wishes she'd started sooner.

As the morning inched toward afternoon, Angelina Cortes, librarian at the San Antonio Public Library's Westfall branch, and George Andrade, case assistant navigator at the food bank, walked Peña and her classmates through an array of computer actions: changing settings, dragging desktop icons, conducting internet searches, selecting an option from a drop-down menu. Support staff flitted from desk to desk to help the students troubleshoot specific problems.

"While our primary mission is always going to be food security, I think one of the things that we embody as an organization is helping families move to self-sufficiency," said Melanie McGuire, chief program officer at the food bank.

Self-sufficiency, McGuire noted, isn't limited to "access to nutritious food."

"It's also access to the services that families need so that they're able to live their best lives," she said.

As San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg reportedly said in a December 2019 news release, "Broadband internet is no longer a luxury. It's a necessary utility."

However, a significant percentage of Texas households still have to make do without it. Purdue University has found 9 percent of Texas households do not own an internet-connected device and 14.8 percent do not have internet, according to the food bank.

The issue is particularly pronounced in San Antonio, the state's second-largest city. More than 38 percent of San Antonio households had "no fixed internet access" as of June 2020, according to an analysis by Jordana Barton, senior adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The nonprofit worker characterized broadband internet as a "basic need," comparing it to "food and housing and shelter."

"Increasingly, with many of the programs and services really changing at an alarming pace, the ability for low-income families to have access to information to best address their needs is mostly available online," she said.

"Things like connecting to federal benefit programs or registering for a food distribution — all those services really use a high level of computer access to be able to disseminate information about services in the area. And so when families don't have that access, it puts them at a disadvantage."

Some of the students, including Peña, were taken aback to realize they could turn to the internet to request social support, according to McGuire.

Rather than completing and submitting an electronic form, they had been calling the food bank directly to schedule appointments to pick up food, a comparatively time- and labor-intensive process, McGuire said.

"We did hear a lot of folks were surprised to learn that they could self-service a lot in the space," she said. "I think it was ... just a learning opportunity for them to know that they don't have to be completely reliant on us to obtain that information."

Peña said she was so nervous in the run-up to Thursday she couldn't sleep the night before. By the time the class ended around 11:30 a.m., however, she seemed slightly more confident in her ability to navigate the digital world. While two and a half hours of coaching can't transform a novice into a computer whiz, she is one step closer to surfing the internet on her own now.

"I do need more time, but I did learn a lot," she said.

She expressed a desire to buy a computer of her own.

The next class will likely be held in the third week of January, according to McGuire. In the meantime, the food bank is soliciting donations of laptops and corresponding chargers in good condition and no more than four years old.

"Between 25 and 50" had been donated as of Friday, McGuire said.

©2021 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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