Computers and COVID, How a Non-Profit Strives to Keep Closing the Digital Divide

Reporter Ariel Smith reflects on NEY, her grandfather’s non-profit in Altadena, CA, which provides low-cost access to technology and its importance during the pandemic.

Tim Smith at NEY’s entrance in Altadena, CA. Photo provided by Adriana Rubalcaba

A Family Affair

In a rapidly digitized world Neighbors Empowering Youth (NEY) seeks to address technological inequality just outside of Los Angeles, in Altadena, CA. Since their founding in 2000, they have primarily served at-risk youth while also providing necessary services to disabled persons, immigrants, seniors, the formerly incarcerated, and the under-employed. They do so by teaching classes and providing low-cost or free equipment to those in need.

NEY has been a crucial part of my childhood. My grandfather founded it and my dad, Tim Smith, now works as the Community Outreach Coordinator. When I was in elementary school I was fascinated by how advanced the students at NEY were. When I was busy playing with Legos they were programming their machines.

I worked there over summer breaks, setting up workstations and setting up equipment. Now that I’m older, I’m able to appreciate the work ethic it instilled in me and recognize the importance of providing a safe space for youth to build an applicable skill-set.

The robotics room is undergoing changes. Photo provided by Tim Smith.

Teaching Robotics

“We do offer classes but our main focus is on our first robotics team. That’s where junior and high school students learn how to build a problem-solving robot,” said Tim Smith. “The program helps them develop critical thinking skills, learning skills and also enables them access to millions of dollars worth of scholarships.”

In NEY’s mission of helping at-risk youth, they have been an instrumental part in the creation of many FIRST groups, a global robotics community. Their home team 2404, won a rookie inspiration award their initial year in 2008, and in 2020 placed second in a regional competition.

The learning lab, now equipped with plexiglass and spaced 6ft apart. Photo provided by Tim Smith

Pandemic Upheaval

“So [COVID] pretty much killed the 2021 season,” said Smith. NEY now does a combination of remote and in-person learning. “There’s several different aspects to the team. There’s not just the building in the robotics room, but there’s graphic design elements. There’s fundraising elements. There’s coding and programming elements. So the kids are able to contribute in the area where they’re most comfortable.”

COVID also brought new safety measures. “We’ve got plexiglass stations set up around the computer workstation,” Smith said. “We do require indoor masking at our location and everything is wiped down and sanitized after use.”

While the shop is not as crowded due to the nature of the pandemic, our family remains optimistic about the reemergence of FIRST robotics competitions soon.

“[We seek] to close the digital divide. By helping underserved and minority communities gain access to low-cost or free computer technology that lets them be connected to the world,” said Smith. “Because that’s the way the world is going. We’re becoming a more connected world but as we become more connected we also become more disconnected.”

Digital illiteracy contributes to poverty and reduced opportunities. Most jobs require a working knowledge of programs like Word and Excel, so not being able to do so limits an individual’s employment opportunities. NEY provides these classes at a low cost so that underprivileged families can benefit.

“We donate numerous laptops each year to students as well as seniors. So we kind of hit it at both ends of the spectrum,” said Smith on their in-home computer placement program. “Our focus is of course on the younger folks, but we’ve become known as a resource in the community for our ability to help a wide variety and spectrum of people with their technology issues.”

NEY accepts monetary donations from individuals and corporations as well as PC desktop systems, laptops, copiers/printers, and monitors. More information and specifications can be found on their website.

In their 22 years, NEY has received letters of commendation from their local congresswoman Judy Chu who has held a seat in congress since 2009. NEY has received numerous community awards and they’ve been featured in local English and Spanish publications. The pandemic has created new challenges, but there’s no stopping my family’s team and community effort.

Reynolds Sandbox reporting by Ariel Smith

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Reynolds Sandbox

Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.