In the rural communities of San Mateo County’s South Coast, internet access is pretty sparse.
“The area we live in is super rural. The closest hospital is one hour away, and the supermarket is 30 minutes away,” says Ophélie Vico, the Community Health Director of Puente, a local nonprofit. “There are limited internet providers, and some areas do not have any internet service at all. Many people have never used technology before, and for some of our participants, English is not their first language. It can be a very challenging area to work in. … We live in the same county as Silicon Valley, but the connectivity looks very different here.”
Ophélie adds that COVID-19 highlighted the need for internet access. She says: “The pandemic really brought awareness to the issue. Many kids couldn’t attend school from home because their household didn’t have a computer or Wi-Fi, and a lot of older adults began asking us how to use telehealth to talk to their doctors.”
In order to address this digital divide along the South Coast and in other parts of the county, San Mateo County applied for the state’s Access to Technology (ATT) grant and partnered with Community Tech Network to implement the project. As part of this initiative, Puente has been referring potential learners to CTN’s Home Connect Program, which provides them with free tablets and one-on-one, remote technology training. This training is available in eight languages and is personalized to meet learners’ needs.
Puente, which primarily serves the communities of Pescadero, La Honda, Loma Mar, and San Gregorio along the South Coast, already offers an impressive array of bilingual services, including early childhood and adult education, free mental health sessions, financial assistance, health and housing advocacy, immigration services, and case management. The team was excited to begin working with CTN and has since referred 19 learners to our program.
Maria Gongora, Puente’s Senior Services Associate, has been in close contact with these learners and says they were all very pleased with the program. “They’ve been surfing the net, reading the news, searching for videos, and putting different apps like WhatsApp on their tablets. One woman even heard about TikTok and came up to me like, “Oooh, do you have TikTok?” They’re really enjoying it.”
In particular, Maria has been impressed with the CTN instructors’ patience. She recently spoke with an 80-year-old learner who raved, “I love my teacher. She takes her time.”
Some of the program’s results may even have impacts for the years to come. Maria adds that another learner told her how she feels “more independent and confident” because she no longer has to ask her neighbors for help with technology. Additionally, Maria thinks that being online “opens possibilities to be connected and see what’s going on in the world.” Some learners, for example, have even been able to find news online from their small hometowns in Mexico!
In order to maintain this commitment to bridging the digital divide in their community, Puente also recently applied for and received another digital equity grant. They used the funds to hire a bilingual digital navigator, who was trained by CTN. The navigator will bring direct, on-the-ground assistance to community members by offering ongoing tech support and assistance in signing up for low-cost internet through the Affordable Connectivity Program. This navigator presence complements the tutoring and tablets provided by Home Connect.
While Ophélie acknowledges that there is “nowhere else in San Mateo” like the South Coast and that “being connected will not look the same for everyone,” she says that she is “really grateful that Puente has had this experience with CTN.”