People use the internet to meet basic needs, to learn, to connect with others, to access essential services and resources, and more. Public schools expect students and parents to access the internet for studying, submitting homework, and communicating. Children with home internet access enter kindergarten already digitally proficient.
Research has repeatedly shown that people who do not have internet access at home are more likely to be economically poor, elderly, people of color, or living in rural areas. In a community, access to broadband can improve the delivery of government, social and health services, and increase community and civic engagement. Communities with widespread internet access have the potential to be more inclusive. And, fast, affordable broadband helps a community attract businesses, promoting economic vitality and growth.
As a result, Allegany Franciscan Ministries identified improving digital equity as a strategy to work toward our vision for equitable and just communities. All three Common Good Communities have prioritized jobs and economic stability. Without adequate quality internet access, the strategies to improve economic stability in each community cannot be fully realized and sustained.
In Lincoln Park, Allegany and the Common Good Initiative partnered with the City of Fort Pierce, St. Lucie County government, and Fort Pierce Utilities Authority on a long-term plan to create the Lincoln Park Smart Neighborhood. The goals include home access through fiber optic, increased broadband, and free public Wi-Fi.
In Wimauma, the Wimauma Connects program was launched in 2018 by Enterprising Latinas, first providing connectivity among businesses and residents near the downtown corridor by placing nine antennas to provide 20+ local businesses and their patrons with Wi-Fi access. Since then, additional antennas across a broader footprint have provided access to hundreds of families, in particular neighborhoods where most residents have limited resources, as well as centering around schools and churches. While continuing to expand its reach, Wimauma Connects is also training residents in digital literacy.
More recently, Allegany is proud to have partnered with the Hillsborough Education Foundation (HEF) to work with families at Wimauma and Reddick Elementary Schools to close the digital divide. The initial goal of the project was to provides computers and broadband access to 75 low-income families. Through the funding provided by Allegany Franciscan Ministries, 84 families have been assisted benefiting 246 students to date!
HEF’s Digital Equity team has received over 900 referrals for technology resources from Hillsborough County Public School staff including social workers, teachers, administrators, school counselors and migrant advocates since the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. During a home visit, eLearning Coaches meet with families to assess their digital literacy skills and engagement in their child’s learning. Technology provided to families includes a T-Mobile hotspot with one year of internet service (if needed) and a Microsoft Surface Go 2 with keyboard cover for the family to keep. The eLearning Coaches provide education materials including digital literacy handouts, video tutorials, and live webinars. A one-month follow-up assessment is completed by the coach over the phone and the coaches are available to help families with technical support. Families state that the technology resources help students have access, complete homework, improve access to education and provide opportunities for success. With over 200 families currently on HEF’s waitlist to receive services, the Digital Equity team is working diligently to continue serving those in need.
“The digital divide in our community has always been an issue but the pandemic exacerbated it and brought to our attention how wide the disparities in digital access are. Hillsborough Education Foundation is so grateful for partners like Allegany who are committed to closing the opportunity gap in Hillsborough County by supporting families in need.”
– Anna Corman, Chief Program Officer