Comcast program boosts teen center kids into digital world

From left: Facilitator/Instructor Ray Whitaker, Caleb Enos, Jordan Gonsalves, Bradley Anastacio, Chase Eppers, Tjark Aldeborgh, Cal Howard, and Julian Givigi attended the graduation ceremony. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Six hours of classroom study a week for eight months, plus over 50 hours of community service and an independent project — not the kind of schedule most teens would sign up for while balancing school and possibly part-time work. But 13 kids did make — and keep — that commitment.

The students were honored last Thursday with a graduation and awards ceremony at the YMCA’s Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center.

A group of 12 boys and one girl that ranged from 14-year-olds to recent high school graduates, successfully completed the Digital Connectors program – designed and sponsored by Comcast to increase digital literacy in teens and spread technology skills to others in the community. The dedicated few were rewarded with netbooks and flip cams as well as certificates of completion from Cisco Net Acadamy. Two members of the class also received iPads for their outstanding work.

Ray Whittaker, assisted by 25-year-old Jai Berger, a mentor for the teen center, led the local program.

Comcast launched the Digital Connectors program nationwide last fall in partnership with One Economy, a global nonprofit that helps connect underserved populations with vital information through technology. The Island kids were one of 33 groups across the country who completed the program at the end of this school year.

Rebecca Fracassa, Comcast’s director of community investment for the greater Boston region, was responsible for bringing the program to the Island. “Digital literacy is the cornerstone of the mission of Comcast,” she said at the graduation ceremony and pizza party last week.

“We’ve been working with the Martha’s Vineyard Y for eight years now,” Ms. Fracassa said. “We’re always interested in having an investment in the communities we serve and we were looking for where we could fit in here in the digital space. We’ve supplied the teen center with every piece of technology over three years that we could provide.”

Comcast funded the teen center’s state-of-the-art recording studio, Studio 57, while the teen center was still in its former home in the basement of the Y. Since, the center moved to their permanent location adjacent to the main building of the Y six months ago, Comcast has funded a $25,000 portable computer lab with 18 new Macbook Pros. The new lab made it possible to host the Digital Connectors Program here.

The program was initially introduced to areas with under-resourced populations, but Ms. Fracassa believed that the Vineyard could also benefit from the program. “Comcast was not buying into the myth of the Vineyard, that everyone here is wealthy,” Teen Center director Tony Lombardi said. “They cut through all that and got right to the core of what our need was. They are very philanthropic, very humanistic. They’re investing in our greatest assets. They’re investing in our kids.”

The course curriculum included basic computer training and Internet protocol, as well as financial literacy, leadership, and teamwork skills building.

“At Comcast we have three key areas of focus – technology literacy, youth leadership, and volunteerism, “Ms. Francassa said.

For the community service piece of the program, the kids helped seniors in elderly housing set up electronic equipment, volunteered at Windemere nursing home and worked on the latest Habitat for Humanity project.

Mr. Whitaker expanded the existing curriculum a bit to include public speaking exercises and some hands-on time with computer repair. He invited the owners of M.V. Tech to show kids how to take apart and rebuild a computer, lessons that were very popular with the kids, according to Mr. Whitaker.

Each participant was required to make a short video as their final project. Nick Giliberto, one of the winners of the iPads, made a 20-minute film on how to survive in the wild. “I could easily see it showing on the Discovery Channel,” Mr. Whitaker said.

The other iPad recipient, 2012 MVRHS grad Kunal Datta of Oak Bluffs, showed up for the ceremony a little late. Coming straight from work, he was still dressed in the button down shirt and tie and that he wears for his summer job as a bank teller.

“I got more than I hoped for,” Mr. Datta said. “It was mainly about computers but it was great leadership training. We had to speak in front of the class.” He added that he now feels a lot more confident in his public speaking skills since completing the program. He will attend Bentley University in Waltham in the fall, majoring in either accounting or finance.

Caleb Enos of Chappaquiddick, who will be a high school senior this fall, was very enthusiastic in his praise of the Digital Connectors program, “It turned out to be the greatest thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. Caleb notes that during his freshman and sophomore years he didn’t get involved in extracurriculars and kept to himself a lot. He made up for lost time this past year by joining the high school’s film club, videotaping the high school plays and signing on with the Minnesingers, as well as participating in the teen center based program.

A self-described nerd (“I’m very proud of that fact”), Mr. Datta said, “I used to be the kid in the back of the pack filming things.” Now, he notes that he has formed close bonds with a number of the other kids in the program. “I really feel like I got to know them better. I knew a lot of them before, but just superficially.”

Graduating senior Tjark Aldeborgh of Edgartown managed to juggle school, soccer and lacrosse practice with the program’s demanding schedule. Although he said that he has learned enough from the course to disassemble and combine two old computers to make a more efficient one for himself, what he feels he really gained from the program was leadership skills. “I’m trying to go on to a military school and being a leader is one of the most important things you can do,” He said.

Julian Givigi, a high school junior from Vineyard Haven, increased his social skills. “When I started the program I wasn’t exactly social,” he said. “The program has helped me meet new people.”

Julian is a drummer who experiments with electronic music. He notes that the Vineyard teens have expressed interest in incorporating some of their other interests in the future. “I’m confident that future Digital Connectors courses will be able to expand more and go beyond the box,” he said.

Mr. Whitaker stresses that one of the goals of the course is to pass on skills to others. “More than anything else, it comes down to being responsible and accountable with technology, using it for good purposes, and paying that mission and message forward within our own community,” he said.

He also believes that what the teens gained from the experience will extend into many areas of their lives. “Beyond the curriculum itself, I wanted them to realize that they could do anything they wanted to do. Whether it’s in the field of technology or not.”