Closing the Digital Divide

Marie-Claire Camp believes that disadvantaged individuals can help to improve their lot in life through access to computers, and she hopes to rectify the situation with a simple hello. Or at least its pig Latin equivalent: ellohay.

Camp and others have recently formed a nonprofit organization called ellohay! West Michigan whose initial goal is to put 100 gently-used laptops into the hands of individuals who ordinarily wouldn't have access to computers to achieve better grades, land better jobs, take control of their finances, and connect with their community.

In addition to the laptops, the executive director of ellohay! West Michigan wants to pair every person who receives a laptop with a technical wiz who will serve as an instructor on using programs and accessing the Internet and a troubleshooter if technical problems arise.

The fledgling organization already has 75 mentors lined up to work with laptop recipients, Camp says.

"We're not just giving people laptops. We're also offering computer classes and free technical support," says Camp, 28. Like the other volunteers at the organization, Camp receives no pay for her efforts to launch and maintain ellohay! West Michigan.

Experts say that Camp and her cohorts may be onto something in their efforts to correct what they have dubbed the "digital divide" in computer use and Internet access.
Researchers at the University of Southern California reported in 2005 that children living in homes with a computer were more likely to graduate from high school than young adults without computer access at home, after culling out factors such as income and parental education. Mary Keegan Eamon, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reported in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare in 2004 that only one third of disadvantaged youth were likely to own a home computer even though they were equally as likely to use a home computer for academic purposes.

Mac Fowler, a web designer and go-to technology guy in Grand Rapids, serves on the organization's three-member board of directors with Camp and Thomas Henry.  "I got involved because it targets a great problem," says Fowler, 29. "There's a huge digital divide in our society and throughout the world. A lot of people don't have the access to news, information, and job postings that we all take for granted because we have computers." 

A self-proclaimed "technology geek," Fowler said ellohay! West
Michigan is embarking on an effort that "can actually make West Michigan a better place by providing that kind of equipment to people" who otherwise would not have access to it.

Camp hopes to enlist the help and generosity of corporations and individuals who may have laptop computers that are under-powered for demanding business applications, but are perfectly fine for personal use. "Three years is the normal cycle for computer (replacement) in large corporations, and we're trying to convince those corporations that giving the laptops to us is a better idea than putting them in storage or trying to sell them," she says. The stored laptops will only take up space and decrease in value the longer the companies hold on to them.

Camp says that ellohay! West Michigan expects to get its 501(c)3 designation in about a month, at which time the organization will be able to accept the donation of a laptop as a tax deductable contribution.

The group currently has relatively open-ended criteria for those individuals seeking a laptop, she says. While income level is not an overriding factor, Camp is quick to point out that income often separates the haves from the have-nots.

Basically, a potential recipient is required only to demonstrate his or her need for a laptop, a small set of reasonable goals that a laptop will help achieve, and a willingness to perform eight hours of community service.

She says the group is focusing on laptops rather than desktop computers because many of the potential recipients have "issues of stability" in their lives, such as varied work histories and frequent address changes.

The goals a recipient sets for himself or herself can be as varied a finishing high school or improving one's grades to getting a job promotion or embarking on a new career, she says.

As for community service, Camp says possible projects include everything from stuffing envelopes or cooking at a soup kitchen to cleaning out horse stalls at riding stables where handicapped children are paired with horses.

For 7-year-old Lilyanna Schiller, appropriate goals might be to use her laptop for school work and to maintain good grades. Camp says Lilyanna would qualify for the ellohay! West Michigan program because of her mother's limited income. Lilyanna, who turns 8 in June, says the prospect of cleaning out horse stalls is one she welcomes -- if it translates into her receiving her own laptop. "I'd be working with horses," says Lilyanna, a second-grader at Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center. "I like horses."

Camp says the organization plans a formal kick-off at 5 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at the B.O.B. in Grand Rapids. That night, the organization will extend an invitation to individuals, businesses, and other organizations to get involved in ellohay! West Michigan's efforts. The event also will serve as a fund-raiser.

On July 2, the group plans a Geek-a-thon in Eastown to invite computer-savvy geeks to help erase the hard drives on donated laptops, make any necessary repairs to the machines, then install new operating systems on them.

Camp says ellohay! West Michigan hopes by then to have lined up its first 100 laptop recipients who will formally submit applications for the laptops starting July 15. Once the would-be recipients complete their eight hours of community service, they will be given their laptops -- possibly as soon as early August, Camp says.

And what's with the organization's goofy name? Camp says 'hello' is one of the first things most people type onto a newly-acquired, web-connected computer. She says the group originally called itself the Digital Inclusion Group.

"People had no idea what we were talking about, so we had to come up with something a little more accessible and a little less technical," she says.

Keith Essenburg is a local freelance writer whose work has appeared in daily publications, business magazines, and on line.


Marie-Claire Camp, executive director of ellohay! West Michigan (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.