by David Neilsen
People who aren’t on the Internet are often cut off from friends and family and isolated from society at large. In fact, there’s an entire demographic of people across all races and gender whose world is shrinking just when everyone else’s world is expanding: senior citizens.
Daniel Kent wants to change that with Senior Connects, a youth-run, not-for-profit organization based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Senior Connects sends high school and college kids into independent living facilities to bring the Internet to this generation, reconnecting them with family, loved ones, and the pulse of today.
The impact of this work cannot be understated. As Helen Lenke, one of Daniel’s first pupils, put it, “Now we don’t have to sit around waiting for the undertaker. [Daniel] and his aids were patient, respectful, kind and successful in teaching us with a simple formula of his own to write e-mails, play poker, bridge, watch the news, search for bargains on the Internet, find pictures of my family receiving honors as professors of law and medicine and so much more.”
The results have been astounding. In 2004 alone, Senior Connects provided computer access to 61 independent/assisted living facilities serving 10,076 residents. For his efforts, Daniel was recognized as Indiana Middle School’s Volunteer of the Year in 2003. He was also named a 2004 national “Points of Light” winner, a BRICK Award winner in 2005, and had his work recognized by a joint resolution from the Indiana State House and Senate.
Now Daniel is taking his calling to another level with the creation of Net Literacy. This organization combines Senior Connects with three other programs:
- Safe Connects, which works to educate people about online safety
- Computer Connects, which brings computer access and training to underserved people living in publicly-subsidized multiple dwelling unit housing
- Youth Connects, which brings access and training to families with elementary school-aged children who are on public assistance and can’t afford a computer of their own
Net Literacy’s goal is to bring the Internet to everyone, so that no one is left out or left behind.
HowStuffWorks: Where did you get the inspiration to start Senior Connects?
Daniel Kent: A lot of the volunteers, myself included, volunteer at our public library. And one of the opportunities we can volunteer for are a number of computer training classes. They’re open to all library patrons and they range from everything from computer basics all the way up through e-mail and beyond.
HowStuffWorks: Have you always worked with computers?
Daniel Kent: I’ve been working with computers since I was really young, so I thought that this would be a really good idea for me.
HowStuffWorks: How young were you when you started playing with computers?
Daniel Kent: I’d say almost four. I mean sometimes it was just messing around with the keyboard, but my parents have told me that I’ve always been attracted towards computers.
HowStuffWorks: So how did volunteering at the library turn into Senior Connects?
Daniel Kent: So we’re volunteering there, and one gentleman who I had previously helped there, he was back for a quickie e-mail class. We were chatting after class and he mentioned that he really enjoyed the program, however he was talking with a friend at his retirement home who was wheelchair bound and had no transportation to the public library.
HowStuffWorks: Is that when the bell went off in your head? Hearing this?
Daniel Kent: Exactly. I felt strongly, especially as a student, that nobody should be denied the opportunity to learn. Consequently, I looked around for an organization that could help this gentleman’s friend.
HowStuffWorks: And when you didn’t find anyone who could help, you took matters into your own hands?
Daniel Kent: I got some of my friends and we started Senior Connects.
HowStuffWorks: How old were you when you started this?
Daniel Kent: I was in junior high. In the 8th grade.
HowStuffWorks: So did you just start going to retirement homes and offering your services, or did you step back and create the organization then and there?
Daniel Kent: We knew we’d want to get non-profit status, but we wanted to get a jump start. So we looked around for computer donations, from the library and a few other organizations and local companies. We also received donations of computer manuals from the library. And that was very helpful, because what we did was we did things like we increased the font size, made everything a little more senior friendly. And we eventually based our curriculum off of the manuals.
HowStuffWorks: Was getting the initial donations the most difficult part of starting the program?
Daniel Kent: Initially, one of the greatest obstacles we faced was the fact that many retirement homes lacked computers. So we soon got into the business of refurbishing computers. And that’s one of the major components of what Net Literacy is today.
HowStuffWorks: And this was all being done by you and your friends? Minors?
Daniel Kent: Throughout the entire process, it was completely youth-managed, youth-serviced. It was completely youth-driven. All of our board members and executives were youth. But as we developed our 501(c) 3 status, we started to realize that minors can’t really be held accountable for large sums of money.
HowStuffWorks: How did you get around that?
Daniel Kent: We worked with a number of individuals that had some experience in youth empowerment and also in non-profit group construction. So we sort of created a partially-youth board/partially-adult board. It really actually turned out for the better because not only do the youths and adults work together but the youth frequently mentor the adults. For the most part, the adults are in areas that a lot of students have an interest in. For example we have a high school principal on our board; we have IT guys, and also lawyers. And I’m currently fascinated with education, computers, and law, so it works well for me.
HowStuffWorks: How involved are the adults in the day-to-day aspect of the organization?
Daniel Kent: Originally, adults were the people who would drive us around, we didn’t have our driver’s permits then. Now we work with a lot of adults who help us get our 501(c) 3 status, they’ve helped us through a lot of paperwork, and so on.
HowStuffWorks: Adults are good at bureaucracy?
Daniel Kent: Absolutely. They really helped us with all the governmental papers and, yeah, bureaucracy.
HowStuffWorks: Aside from seeing the need, what was it about this particular issue that drew you to it? What do you get from working closely with people who are not even one but two or sometimes three generations ahead of you?
Daniel Kent: For me personally… both of my grandfathers are very tech-savvy, they both have computers, but not up to using e-mail. I really wanted to remain in contact with them. So now I can e-mail back and forth with them. Additionally, we know how crucial, how integral technology is in our world. Meanwhile, their world is often getting smaller; they’re having their keys taken away and so on.
HowStuffWorks: You saw this as a chance to expand their world via the Internet?
Daniel Kent: Exactly. This is an opportunity for their world to grow — a chance for them to have immediate access to resources and to friends and family through the Internet.
HowStuffWorks: How did this evolve into Net Literacy?
Daniel Kent: Net Literacy started from a realization that Internet illiteracy is not a just a phenomenon applied to senior citizens, it’s prevalent throughout our entire society. We initially identified a couple of segments of the population — elementary school students whose families are on public assistance, section 8 HUD housing, and a couple of others — who also lack either computer access or lack computer training. In addition to that, one of our main focuses recently has been on the aspect of computer safety.
HowStuffWorks: Computer safety?
Daniel Kent: In high school and in middle school, a lot of us take a health class and learn to stay safe and physically fit, but what they don’t teach us is how to stay safe on the Internet. Now you hear so many horrible stories like on “Dateline” and all the other news programs about kids our age being taken advantage of on the Internet when they are absolutely innocent and don’t know how to avoid the predators and sometimes how to just act courteously on the Internet. Through that desire to gain awareness, we created another organization called Safe Connects.
HowStuffWorks: So you have Senior Connects, you have Safe Connects, there are other organizations listed on your site. Does Net Literacy bring them all together under one umbrella?
Daniel Kent: Exactly. That’s why we reorganized our board and tried to streamline our programs. And most recently, we’ve been working with the Central Indiana Public Schools and also a couple of other cities throughout Indiana and the United States, to develop a Senior Connects/Net Literacy program that is replicable and also scaleable in their community. For example, one of our biggest public school systems, the Indianapolis Public School System, their seven or eight high schools have each adopted a Net Literacy club which they’ve named, like, Student Empowerment Computer Outreach Society, I think. What they do is not only do they help their community which is served by the school systems, but also they learn valuable skills like assembling computers and also, like, teaching and writing grants. And they work hand-in-hand with IT and Computer academies which prepare them for an eventual career.
HowStuffWorks: It sounds like you’re really trying to create a larger net-literate culture in your area and then letting it spread throughout the country.
Daniel Kent: You got it.
HowStuffWorks: What does the future hold for Net Literacy? Where do you see this going?
Daniel Kent: Last summer we hosted a program that worked with a number of inner city, urban high schools in Indianapolis, and they are helping us create the curricula for the next program. We’ve already heard from a number of school districts that want to include the next program, the academic curriculum. We also have almost monthly computer drives throughout the state and cities to collect computers and repurpose them. Also, what’s really neat, those computers we can’t repurpose, what we’ve done is we’ve partnered with an organization called Asset Forwarding. What they do is they specialize in secure data elimination and computer recycling. In other words they take all the really highly sensitive, top-secret information in computer — from, like, hospitals and the military — and they make sure that all the data is erased. And they’ve been able to really help us refurbish computers, but they also take all the computers that we can’t use, because maybe they’re too old, and they take them and they recycle them in a compliant manner that is environmentally friendly.
HowStuffWorks: Is Net Literacy spreading beyond Indianapolis and Indiana?
Daniel Kent: Absolutely. One of the main objectives is, we are creating the whole program so that it would be scalable and replicable, throughout communities in the United States, and even the world. We haven’t really ourselves created branches throughout the United States and so forth, but we’ve received correspondence from individuals who maybe heard about our curriculum and wish to start their own branch. And we’ve received responses from everywhere from San Jose, California to Atlanta, Georgia, Syracuse, New York, and even Winnipeg, Canada.
HowStuffWorks: So even though they’re not under your umbrella, they’re calling you for advice and starting their own programs with the materials you created?
Daniel Kent: Exactly.
HowStuffWorks: Before we go, can you give us an example of how your program has changed someone’s life?
Daniel Kent: One of our first students, his name is Dr. Grinnan. He had a number of grandchildren that he was unable to stay in contact with very frequently because they lived pretty far away. He was one of the first individuals who signed up and he was very enthusiastic. I guess enthusiasm is very contagious because we were all excited. At first he didn’t know anything about computers except how to program the old mainframes, what he learned in college. Then people would get very frustrated because he was always on the computer in the retirement home, so very few people would be able to get on. He would always stay in front of the computer doing research — looking up medical conditions, e-mailing his grandchildren, even play card games online. Eventually, he got his own computer, so a lot of the residents were happier about that. But [he and his grandchildren] correspond back and forth with each other and it’s just really awesome to not only help your community but also to make new friends with people who you might not ordinarily meet.