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Waltham group focuses on Internet access.

The digital divide is a hot issue as it becomes clear that access to computers and the Internet is becoming more and more essential to full participation in our society. Centers like the Charles River Public Internet Center in Waltham, Mass. are leading the charge to make sure that everybody has both the access and the training they need. CRPIC Executive Director Kathleen Spirer told us how they’re doing it.

Who started the CRPIC, and why?

A group of Waltham educators, nonprofit leaders, and business owners started the CRPIC as part of a citywide plan to make access to technology and education available to surrounding communities. When the Boston Computer Society (BCS) closed in November 1996, the affordable computer training classes, computer recycling, and user support once provided by the BCS were still needed. So founders of the CRPIC built the center on a library model to provide free access to computers, the Internet, and affordable classes to anyone. To maintain our free and low-cost services, the Center leases its four training labs to businesses and organizations.

There are hundreds of community technology centers across the country. The CRPIC is notable in that its service range is not limited to specific place of residence, income level, or membership in a parent organization.

Has it been successful in its plan to be self-sustaining?

The CRPIC has been 100 percent self-funded since 1999. Like all businesses, the CRPIC has been negatively impacted by local and national economic trends, but this has brought out the entrepreneurial spirit of our staff.

Has the economic slowdown affected your operations?

As IT companies downsized or closed their doors, some of our first budget cuts were in the areas of customer training and professional development for staff. Like other small businesses, the CRPIC has diversified the mix of income generating services and programs offered at the center. While our free computer access program and affordable computer basics classes remain in place, we will be adding many new programs that are fee-based.

What kinds of people use the CRPIC?

We get a broad cross-section of socioeconomic status, age, gender, race, ethnicity, education and technical expertise. About 30 percent of the 1,000-plus visitors we see every month at the CRPIC are looking for jobs. We provide job seekers with a free e-mail account, résumé templates, job search Web links and up to three free one-on-one tutoring sessions by appointment with students from the Work Service Learning Program at Bentley College.

Do you have a story of someone who’s been really helped by the CRPIC?

The CRPIC was a training provider for a local computer and job readiness program for at-risk teenagers aged 14-18 called Workforce Prep Plus (WP2). The students left with greatly improved written and oral communication skills, a résumé, mock interview video, and advanced computer research skills. Two of the graduates are currently working at the CRPIC as tutors and office assistants. These students, once considered at risk both socially and academically, are now teaching others how to use computers.

What plans do you have for the future?

In the fall of 2002, several new job-training programs will roll out in partnership with the New Economy Technology Training Consortium (NETT). The center will also be expanding the range of its computer workshops and classes for adults and youth. Digital movie making, music editing and online gaming will be the cornerstone of our Family Friday program. Parents can enroll their children (10 and older) in evening workshops at the CRPIC, drop them off at 6 PM, and pick them up at 9 PM.

In the job-training area, our focus will be on adding programs that prepare participants for certification exams such as A+, Network Plus, CCNA, Voice and Data Cabling and others. Other future initiatives include Internet Conferencing capability, an online gaming club, expanded summer program options for children, and a technical trainer certificate program.

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