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Santa Barbara County program connects residents with computers and internet service

Courtesy of Partners in Education video
Participants in the Los Prietos Boys Camp vocational program help with upgrading donated hardware and training.

Schools have moved to online education and that means every student needs a computer and internet access to participate. A program called Computers for Families provides refurbished equipment and technical support to families throughout Santa Barbara County.

For over 20 years, Computers for Families has distributed gently-used computers and accessories to people in need, with the help of donations from corporations and individuals. The program is administered by Partners in Education, a nonprofit associated with the Santa Barbara County Education Office. 371 families got online access via the program in 2019.

But this year is different.

“In the COVID period alone, so just in the last five months, we have served over 600 families,” said Partners in Education executive director Chelsea Duffy.

Duffy said with education moving online, the organization is working closely with schools to meet the needs of all students for distance learning.

“We’re kind-of filling in the gaps and working very closely with schools to make sure their students have what they need to be successful,” Duffy said.

For many families, it’s the first computer in the home, so the nonprofit also provides training and tech support to be sure everyone is up and running. Students are the largest group served by the program—though they are not the only ones.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we have expanded our services to support anyone who needs a device in Santa Barbara County,” Duffy said. “We’ve opened it up recognizing that the need is so widespread that it goes beyond just students.”

Computers for Families partners with other nonprofits and institutions to get the job done. Before the pandemic, juvenile inmates at the county-operated Los Prietos Boys Camp helped with distribution events, at which families picked up their equipment and received an orientation. The teens acted as translators and answered questions as a way to give back to the community.

“We are eternally indebted to Los Prietos Boys Camp,” Duffy said. “This program would not be what it is without that history and we hope to be able to revitalize that and get it going again.”

Partners in Education development associate Erika Terrazas now handles about 50 calls per week from families in need of technology or support. That’s more than twice the normal volume of calls.

“Typically, our calls are about 20 per week in a normal situation,” Terrazas said.

Terrazas says getting connected to the internet for the first time can be a challenge, and she encourages anyone who needs online access to ask for help.

“If they need help with the application or just to get connected to any type of internet, we’ll be there to assist them along the way,” Terrazas said.

Computers for Families works closely with local providers for discounted internet service for those who qualify, and currently, says the organization, it takes about a week to get set up with a computer and internet. Staff rotate times working between north and south Santa Barbara County for installations.

To keep up with ongoing demand, Duffy said Computers for Families welcomes donations of Windows 10 compatible CPUs, laptops, webcams and other accessories.

Click here for more information on the program.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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