Carmel native Daniel Kent remembers precisely when and where the idea came to him for a modest service project that would change his life. At the time, Daniel could hardly have imagined that Net Literacy would become an international model for communities, even governments, to boost computer literacy among under-privileged and under-served populations. He was 14 years old.
“It was 2003 and I was on an airplane returning from Washington D.C., where I’d received a national community service award for my volunteer work at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Carmel Clay Public Library,” Kent explained. “I left the capital reflecting on the many remarkable accomplishments of my fellow honorees, and it inspired me to do even more in my community.”
A member of the library’s Teen Volunteer Corps, Daniel had been serving as an instructional aide in computer classes for senior citizens. Before his D.C. visit, Dan had heard about a wheelchair-bound senior who wanted, but did not have access to, similar instruction at his retirement facility.
So, while cruising at 30,000 feet, Daniel engaged in some mental mixology. He took one part realization (lots of capable people don’t have, or don’t understand computers), and stirred in a dash of inspiration (why don’t I do something about it). The result was a sustainable formula to bridge the growing digital divide between older adults and computing.
Idea Into Action
“I thought that no one should be denied the opportunity to learn, especially computing skills,” said Kent, who at the time was an eighth-grader at Carmel Middle School. He put his idea into action by recruiting several like-minded, tech-savvy Hamilton County middle schoolers. Together they launched Senior Connects, matching tech-interested senior citizens with used computers donated by the public.
“We learned that a lot of retirement facilities didn’t have up-to-date computers, if any. So, we contacted local companies who, along with the library, agreed to donate their unused PCs,” Daniel recalled. The library also provided lesson plans that the teens modified, including enlarging text fonts to make on-screen reading easier for older eyes.
“Dan and his friends taught seniors how to search the Internet, and how to send and receive emails to stay connected with their families,” remembered Hope Baugh, young adult service manager at Carmel Clay Public Library.
Soon the teens were refurbishing dozens of donated computers, and also expanding their constituency to include K-12 students whose families were on public assistance or receiving subsidized school lunches. Computer labs were established at community centers, churches and synagogues offering instruction on Internet safety and financial and computing literacy.
“I believe it’s important that people give back, and serving those in need makes me feel more complete,” said Dan, now 21 and a senior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “By listening to the elderly tell their stories, we gain wisdom. It’s a great two-way relationship.”
Success Brings Growth
Over time, this kernel of an idea grew into Net Literacy, a Carmel-based umbrella organization with five core programs: Senior Connects, Safe Connects, Computer Connects, Financial Connects, and Community Connects.
Marvin Bailey, vice-chairman of Techpoint Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Techpoint, an Indiana technology advocacy group), said that Net Literacy’s programs dovetail nicely with the foundation’s goal to develop 21st-century skills in at-risk youth. “I think Net Literacy has only scratched the surface of what can be accomplished,” he said. And Bailey isn’t just paying lip service. Techpoint Foundation has funded several Net Literacy initiatives (disclosure: Bailey is vice-chairman of Net Literacy).
Initially, the group’s all-volunteer board was exclusively students. Today, it’s a 50-50 split between teens joined by community leaders, educators and information technology professionals. Indiana Senators Lugar and Bayh serve as honorary chairmen, and Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman is a recent addition to the board.
Making a Difference
Don Kent, 60, Daniel’s father, has been involved from the start and continues to serve as mentor, delivery van driver and all-around chief bottle washer. Over the years, he’s observed that Net Literacy’s programs provide great opportunities for teens to practice personal philanthropy. “Student volunteers learn teamwork and leadership skills, and have opportunities to provide meaningful public service in their communities,” said the senior Kent.
The Kents have come to understand that about a third of student volunteers are deeply committed to community service and also do well academically; a third are average students who find Net Literacy to be an extraordinary opportunity; and about a third are students who sometimes face challenges with difficult personal issues or feel isolated from their peers. “These are the kids who really benefit from the social interaction and who gain marketable job skills through volunteering,” explained Don.
It’s a value proposition that’s not lost on parents. Kent tells the story of moms and dads who, when picking up a donated computer for their child, shed tears of gratitude because such an expensive purchase is beyond their financial means. “They understand the importance of technology, and that their kids need to be computer literate to be competitive,” Don said.
Local to International
Word of Net Literacy’s service model has spread rapidly, and its accomplishments are impressive. Computer access has been provided to more than 150,000 Hoosiers in 20 counties, and chapters are up and running in three other Midwest states. Almost 13,000 refurbished computers have been distributed. Equally impressive are the more than 2,000 Hoosier students who have given more than 200,000 hours of voluntary service to their communities.
“Net Literacy’s student volunteers have taught senior citizens and provided computers to several independent living facilities in Carmel,” said Mayor Jim Brainard in a recent prepared statement. “We support these students who volunteer their free time on weekends and after school to help increase digital inclusion throughout Indiana.”
The U.S. Internet Industry Association has cited Net Literacy as the “best digital inclusion model” in America. A recent U.S. Broadband Coalition report included five references to Net Literacy programs and urged their inclusion as part of the nation’s broadband initiative. Daniel Kent was asked to serve on Broadband for America’s Adoption Committee and after a conference call with Daniel, the Federal Communications Commission cited three of Net Literacy’s programs in the National Broadband Plan presented to Congress in April.
Net Literacy’s footprint is also spreading globally. In 2009, Daniel and his father traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, as invited guests of the European Union’s Commission on Digital Inclusion. Having identified and studied the most workable models for digital inclusion in more than 30 countries worldwide, the E.U. named Net Literacy to its best-of-class list. This month, the duo will visit Hong Kong to share best practices and Net Literacy strategies.
A Socially Responsible Generation
The group’s nonprofit status was accomplished, in part, by an unusual and laudable sacrifice. Daniel had saved $4,000 to buy a car, but decided instead to use the funds to pay Net Literacy’s legal and organizational fees.
“When Dan told me about his idea, I felt that it was pretty ambitious,” said his father. “I worried he was spending all of his money on this passion, but also felt it would be a good lesson for him. Instead, it turned out to be a good lesson for me.” The lesson was that adults sometimes don’t fully appreciate the Millennial Generation’s capabilities. “They think, work and are engaged in ways my generation never was. They also have technology available that empowers them, that provides both the opportunity and the responsibility to make a significant impact,” Don said.
It is a sentiment echoed by Hope Baugh, the librarian. “These volunteers seem to have genuine commitments to acting in socially responsible ways, and seeing what they’ve accomplished gives me hope for future generations,” said Baugh.
As an example, Daniel and fellow board officer, Morgan Starks, lobbied the Indiana Legislature to pass legislation encouraging municipalities to engage with Net Literacy’s educational programs. “It’s important to us that the model be an open source and available to any interested party,” explained Daniel. “We never charge for our programs and have received inquiries from San Jose, Calif., Syracuse, N.Y., and Winnipeg, Canada among other cities.”
June means Father’s Day, and Don Kent says part of his celebration will be the Hong Kong trip with Daniel. He also said that working closely with his son makes every day special. “Dan is a great role model in an environment where kids need student heroes who lead by example, and I believe it motivates struggling students to take another swing,” said Don. “He has a big heart, and I’m very proud of him.” Dan responded, “We’re still father and son, but also best friends. In many ways he’s just one of the guys.”
Daniel is on the proverbial fast track, having completed internships at the White House and Dept. of Labor, and is interning with the Dept. of Justice this summer. He’s considering attending law school to prepare for a career in public policy, but plans to always remain active with Net Literacy. “None of this would have been possible without the countless hours of work by many parents and their kids,” explained Dan. “I had no idea Net Literacy would become this big, but I’m confident it will grow nationally and internationally because the challenges aren’t going away anytime soon,” he added.
Oh, and that postponed car purchase? “We ended up with a family vehicle that I drive, and we also use it for hauling donated stuff,” Dan grinned. He wouldn’t have it any other way.