A Hand Up
LINCT's Computers 101 gives jobless participants set of skills they can work with
By Mark Harrington, Newsday Staff Writer, Dec. 10, 2001
THE STUDENTS, a mix of single moms, men without jobs and low-paid workers intent on better careers, sit in an arranged circle of gleaming computer monitors in the bleak lobby of the Southampton Bay Inn, a converted homeless shelter. Long, makeshift blinds block out the afternoon sun and activity in the courtyard, where men in doorways stand watching rush-hour traffic streak past on Montauk Highway.
Inside, Sandra Allen, herself once jobless and lacking computer skills, moves from work station to work station, stopping to offer a tip on typing or word processing. The students could ask for no better mentor than Allen, calm and confident; her progress stands as an example of what many here hope to attain. Each day she travels from her Coram home to teach the afternoon shift of Computers 101 to people determined to better their lot through computer knowledge. In 12 weeks, they'll know enough to list word processing, spreadsheets and Internet use on their resumes, which they'll typeset and print themselves. They'll also have earned a computer they can bring into their homes, with free Internet service for 12 weeks. Many here say they hope to start their own businesses.
With embarrassingly little help from government and the local business community, Ken Komoski and his nonprofit group, which runs this and 14 other classes like it on Long Island, have grown this "learn and earn" computer program from modest roots in Hampton Bays to one with national reach. More than 1,500 people have graduated from the program locally.
While the Learning and Information Network for Communities via Technology coalition continues to operate on a shoestring budget held together largely through the efforts of volunteers, the 7-year-old program has won some recent assurances of more local government assistancethan the roughly $50,000 it gets from Suffolk County each year.
"What we've been paying this group is not fair," said Legis. Fred Towle (R-Shirley). "We're trying to rectify that." Towle recently had LINCT submit a proposed budget for all its services that assumed all the work was done by paid staffers, not volunteers. It came to nearly $500,000 a year.
Komoski said he's been operating on just more than $50,000 a year. Towle said he plans to use the budget to argue in the legislature that LINCT needs more money with less red tape, a project with an uncertain future in the cash-strapped county budget. "People don't realize how much this group is doing," he said.
Komoski, a retired Columbia University professor who doesn't take a salary, has seen to it that some 250 underprivileged Suffolk residents a year go through the program, but there's a waiting list of 400, and he doesn't advertise. Computer donations have outpaced the ability to place them, causing the group's donated warehouse in Riverhead to fill beyond its means.
For a region whose tech firms have long complained of a lack of skilled workers to take even entry-level data-processing or help-desk jobs, the lack of support remains baffling to Komoski.
"If businesses would come in and sit down with us, we could work in very complementary ways," he said, noting companies as large as the former Long Island Lighting Co. have made one-time PC donations, never to be heard from again. "They could come to classes and talk to people to teach them what they need to know to get jobs. They could do mock interviews. There are all kinds of ways we can use volunteers. We need to get these people ready for jobs."
Peter Goldsmith, president of the Long Island Software and Technology Network, a local business association, said regional tech companies remain as willing as ever to help Komoski and LINCT - but they haven't heard from the group in years. He said LINCT has taken a lower profile since Goldsmith helped organize a joint event with LINCT and Long Island Software and Technology Network companies a few years ago to build awareness of the program.
"I haven't heard from [Komoski] since then," Goldsmith said. "I didn't realize they were still around. If he's still doing all the good work he was doing three years ago, I'm sure most people would like to know how to donate and help them."
Komoski said there are limits to his energy.
"I'm only one guy," he said. "I don't have anyone here to do follow-ups with companies. Like my father used to say, 'You can't keep pushing the string.'"
One firm that hasn't required much pushing is HamptonsOnline, a Southampton-based Internet service provider. Robert Florio, its president, has been providing free Internet accounts for LINCT students while they are undergoing training, and four months of free service once they've graduated, for the past two years.
"We had extra capacity," he said. "I understand what Ken is trying to accomplish and support him going out to teach people to use computers."
HamptonsOnline supports more than 100 Internet accounts, including free e-mail and tech support, and hosts the group's eLearningSpace.
"As we've gotten more technology we've said, 'Come on,'" Florio said. "What they're asking us to do doesn't require a large outlay of cash."
Towle said that as the economy worsens, programs like LINCT (and there are few) will be relied upon more to give a broader pool of lower-income workers a chance to move up.
On a sunny Monday morning in the Love'm Thrift store in Riverhead, Karen Wollney, a resident of the nearby Love'm shelter, is here, with her son Alex in a stroller. The single mother of four aims to put her computer skills to work in a job that will stir her children to aim high despite their current situation.
Shanita Robinson, a certified nurse's aide, hopes to put her skills to work in an administrative position in her field. Her current job on the 3-to-11 p.m. shift is physically strenuous, she said, complicated by the difficulty of raising a young son.
Karen Finne, the instructor and a program graduate, said three of four graduates of the program land themselves better situations or jobs after acquiring the skills, though it's difficult to say for certain what the success rate is, since LINCT doesn't track graduates. But Finne herself can attest to the program's success. In addition to earning $17 an hour teaching the class, she's moved on from working as a nurse's aide at a nursing home to a better position working with the mentally handicapped.
That's an incentive for Donna, a homeless mother of four grown men who has lived the past summer in a campground and is looking for a job change (she asked that her last name not be used). She drives a cab each night until 2 a.m. and grabs a few hours of sleep before waking to attend the 9 a.m. class with one of her sons here each day.
"I have big expectations for this," she said.
Dan Martin, a technology consultant who started with LINCT as a trainer in 1996 and worked his way up to program coordinator over four years, understands first-hand the sweat that has kept the program going.
He's driven Ryder trucks all over New York, and even deep into the bowels of the United Nations building to fetch thousands of donated computers. He's trained numerous computer repair technicians for LINCT and has seen them find jobs while making rounds to pick up computers.
"Every time I took a protégé under my wing, every three months they'd get a job, frequently making more than I was," said Martin, who runs a technology-based educational consulting company called Access 4 Technology, in Riverhead. "It was wonderful."
Komoski, through an affiliated group, Educational Products Information Exchange, also has spent considerable time and energy developing a Web site that would serve as a complement to the computer training and home-computer aspects of the programs. Called eLearningSpace, the pilot Internet site combines vast learning resources with links to related sites and provides online tutors, learning incentives, lesson plans and teachers to help disadvantaged kids and their parents put their computer skills to use. It's expected to go live next year.
In addition to its work on Long Island, LINCT has brought learn-and-earn programs to low-income areas as far away as Los Angeles. Martin said programs it has mentored in Chicago, Phoenix, Denver and Philadelphia have seen more than 10,000 computers placed in the homes of the disadvantaged.
One such benefactor is Iris Blackwell, a single mother of a 10-year-old girl who had been content to spend her days on public assistance in front of the television.
In 1997, after Komoski's group imported the program to the Blackwells' Phoenix housing project, she took the training, earned a computer and hasn't looked back. "It has changed my life," she said.
Komoski, 73, does not appear to have let such testaments go to his head. The former Columbia professor with an emphasis in education created in 1962 what he called the first institute for educational technology in the world, and he went on to found the EPIE Institute, which advises schools on software purchases. A jazz buff who is paradoxically low tech, he drives a battered 1994 Honda Civic everywhere, from meetings with educators to graduation ceremonies, which take place every few weeks. At each one, he congratulates graduates for having grown their brains - a statement he means to be taken figuratively and literally. He goes on to explain that those who seek to continually learn more improve their mental capacity in a way that also physically grows their brain.
Those who know Komoski say it's hard to imagine him doing anything but cultivating such growth.
"He wants to help other people," Martin said. "If, in doing that, he leaves his mark, that's OK too."The organization can be reached via its web site, www.linct.org.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.