It doesn’t look like much, but a small room off the chapel of the Israelite Baptist church in Central City has been many things for the community. Now, with the help of a $19,600 NOLA Media Access Grant, it will become a vital public classroom for technology training.
Liberty City Community Development Corporation Director Jennifer Page says that the space, now equipped with 30 refurbished laptops, will give students a high-tech environment in which to complete homework and explore the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — while simultaneously developing their computer skills.
The NOLA Access Initiative was created by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in 2012 as a vehicle to improve local residents’ access to vital information technology. It has already partnered with a half-dozen organizations in and around New Orleans.
“Revitalization and recovery mean more than revitalizing buildings, revitalizing stores — it’s about revitalizing people,” said NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Associate Publisher and Vice President David Francis. “We’re proud to be a small part of Liberty City Community Development’s efforts to increase digital literacy in Central City.”
Page reflects on the days following Katrina, when Liberty City’s was among the only New Orleans after-school programs with its doors still open. Parents came from all over, desperate for a safe space for their children to gather while they worked.
During the days following storm, the number of children the community center served was approximately 60, according to Page — about twice as many as the space can comfortably accommopdate.
“We had kids hanging from the ceiling because we just couldn’t say ‘no,'” Page said. “It was not a good scene.”
Since then, the after-school program has been able to grow and develop its outreach efforts. Computer training was among the offerings, but the last computers used for this purpose were “netbooks,” a type of ultra-compact, low-powered laptop computer that was all but replaced by tablets by 2012.
For Pastor Emanuel Smith Jr. of Israelite Baptist Church, the new NOLA Media Access Grant technology couldn’t come soon enough.
“(Central City) has a large amount of dysfunctional homes,” Pastor Smith said, citing as one example a 12-year-old who was literally almost flushed down a toilet as an infant. “He’s got more challenges than anybody,” the pastor said of a child he describes as “probably the smartest kid” in his congregation.
After-school program director Eureka Harris echoes those observations. A product of Central City and Israelite Baptist Church herself, Harris wants to not only help the children with homework and basic digital literacy, but to expand their belief in what is possible in their lives.
“You have to give (children) greater possibilities than a life of crime, basketball player, football player, or actor,” Harris said.
With the backing of a proud and involved community, however, Central City is making a comeback, bolstered by the efforts of organizations such as the Liberty City Community Development Corporation, and the support of efforts such as the NOLA Access Initiative.
Liberty City Community Development Corporation also has partnered with Brian Branch, owner of the New Orleans tech repair and sales store Computer Geeks, to secure 30 refurbished laptops. By cutting costs on the laptops themselves, Jennifer said, the organization is able to secure more software for the students to work in.
For a neighborhood fighting to retain its heritage and pride, while leaving behind an era of crushing poverty and high crime, these tools are essential for building a future in a digital world.
“You see the community changing, but the people are still the same,” said Smith, “they have got to have — GOT to have — training like this.”