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New Roxbury tech center gives kids gift of access

Jin-ah Kim

Three-dozen Roxbury preschoolers and adults opened a different kind of gift this Christmas, and it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving.

Tech for Tots, a community-based technology access program for preschool- and kindergarten-aged children, recently celebrated the opening of the new Timothy Smith Center computer lab with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hattie B. Cooper Community Center in Roxbury.

Since the lab opened three months ago, it has become a safe haven for children in the community, according to Deb Ansourlian, executive director of the Cooper Community Center.

“Our kids, often at a very young age, confront very difficult decisions about gangs, violence, and drugs,” said Ansourlian. “When they are confronted with those decisions, I want them to remember that they are loved and cared for and that they have options beyond gangs and drugs … The Tech for Tots program helps us to accomplish those goals.”

She said the program also focuses on reducing the “digital divide” — the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital and information technology, and those without it. Many children in Roxbury fall into the latter category, according to Ansourlian.

“Our kids are fighting and they hustle for computer time … our lab allows for steady and consistent computer time that leads to build computer literacy skills,” she said.

Young children in the program not only learn “letters, numbers, colors and shapes,” but also “problem solving skills and critical thinking,” she said. Perhaps as important, they learn how good it feels to accomplish something.

“Now, we often hear through the computer lab door very high, delighted voices: ‘I did it, I did it!’” said Ansourlian.

The lab was created with the aid of donations from Inside Cable Inc., The Turner Construction Company and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, and the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“We are frantic, trying to find that perfect present for someone. Inside Cable and all of our donors here gave the children the gift of opportunity, possibility, hopes and dreams,” Ansourlian said. “That’s the best gift you can give to a child.”

To thank the donors, a group of kindergarteners wearing red sparkling crowns and grey “Tech for Tots” shirts sang two holiday songs in front of the center’s Christmas tree.

The lab was outfitted with 10 kid-friendly modern workstations, housing the latest computer technology and peripheral equipment and stocked with age-appropriate software. Young kids sat engrossed in front of their computer screens, wearing headphones and tapping on keyboards.

“It’s a wonderful experience to see smiles on their faces when they learn something new every day,” said Ruth Nuñez, one of the lab’s instructors, as she sat and explained to a 5-year-old how to use a mouse.

Not only is it heartwarming, said Willie Skinner, a Roxbury resident since 1969 — it’s also necessary, and something he hopes “is going to resonate [and] spread out through the neighborhood.”

“Our kids are our future, and an initiative like this definitely is a positive investment,” said Skinner, who serves on the board of the Timothy Smith Network, an organization of about 40 community technology centers in Greater Roxbury. “I think it’s important to start to plan this early with young kids. I think technology opens up doors and helps to break down barriers.”

That message was echoed by Bill Oates, the city’s chief information officer, who attended the ceremony on behalf of the mayor. Looking around the lab, Oates noted the importance of its inclusive environment.

“If you look at the whole picture, it’s not just the technology, but the colors and furniture,” he said. “One of the great things here is the adjustable chairs. It’s really providing full access to small kids, larger kids and disabled kids … They all deserve a lot of credit.”

“They” are the organizations behind Tech for Tots, a collaborative effort of three main players and a private fund.

“The whole thing, putting this together, was a partnership with Inside Cable, who did all the wiring; Turner Construction, who did all the construction; and the Timothy Smith Fund, which supplied the equipment and the furniture,” said Carolyn Lyons of Strategies for Children, who serves as president of the Cooper center’s board of directors.

Established in 1996, the Timothy Smith Fund for “Old Roxbury” is a trust that has authorized more than $4 million in grants to establish computer learning centers at nonprofit organizations throughout Roxbury.

“I am thrilled, I am very emotional today. It’s been a long haul,” said Alexis Brooks, vice president of marketing and communications of Inside Cable Inc. Tech for Tots has been her and her husband’s dream since 2002.

With the first Tech for Tots program now open, Derek Brooks, Inside Cable’s president and chief of operations, said he and his wife would continue to work to bridge the digital divide.

“The initial one is always the hardest one,” he said. “Now, we have the foundation, the team foundation, so we should be able to operate more efficiently.”

Alison Stanton, community affairs director of Turner Construction Company, said the driving force behind her company joining the Tech for Tots initiative was the desire to get kids a leg up as early as possible.

“It’s so important to start young. That’s why this program is so important, because some of them are not even in elementary school yet,” she said. “We are giving them the foundation to succeed there.”

Roxbury resident Deric Quest, director of the center’s after-school program, said he believes Tech for Tots will have an enormous long-term impact.

“Education is self-esteem itself, and that’s what makes a difference in one’s life. I think the computer is now an essential tool for individuals to blossom into productive citizens,” he said.

“We need more initiatives like this, so no kids would be left behind. When they have an access to computer and technology, it levels the playing field.”