Volunteers share their hi-tech know-how

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Rebekah Sewell

Bob Nisbet teaches computer skills to older adults at the SeniorTech location at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md. The former Navy cryptologist is one of a number of volunteers who share their high-tech skills as part of the Jewish Council on Aging program that is offered at three venues.
Photo courtesy of SeniorTech

Twenty years ago, Les LeVine wandered into Mazza Gallerie in Northwest Washington and discovered a computer room on the top floor. An instructor waved him in, and he stayed for the class.

Now 85, LeVine volunteers for SeniorTech, the Jewish Council on Aging (JCA) computer education program he stumbled upon all those years ago.

SeniorTech was founded in 1991 and was still young when LeVine began taking classes.

“At the time we looked into doing this, people were commenting that computers were just for young people. We felt that senior whiz kids should be able to use the computer as well,” said Micki Gordon, assistant CEO of JCA.

The program changed locations many times as it spread across the Greater Washington area. The Mazza Gallerie location was shut down to make way for the movie theatre.

JCA now holds classes in three locations: Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md., JCA’s Bronfman Center in Rockville, Md., and Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Va.

First learn, then teach

SeniorTech is led and coached by older adult volunteers, many of whom once took classes there. “The idea is seniors teaching seniors,” explained Gordon.

Along with classes, there are assisted practice sessions and open lab days, where past students can attend and hone their skills.

Before retiring, LeVine worked as a window trimmer and a shoe salesman for Woodward & Lothrop, the former retailer, in Washington, D.C.

“I had no experience in computers,” he said. It was his retirement in 1993 that brought him to JCA. “I was bored and looking for something to do,” he explained with a laugh.

Once he took some classes and had the skills, he began coaching. Coaches act as assistants to the instructors. They typically sit in the back of the room.

“We tell them to be as unobtrusive as possible,” explained Robin Blackman, program specialist for SeniorTech. But when students seem to be off track with the curriculum, coaches step up to assist. There are typically one to two coaches for every class, depending on number of students.

Instructors not only teach the class but also formulate the curriculum. They are responsible for leading the lecture and answering questions.

After taking that first class, LeVine didn’t know that he would go on to become an instructor for almost 20 years. “It just snowballed from there,” he said.

Hooked on volunteering

Unexpected volunteer careers seem to be commonplace with SeniorTech. Bob Nisbet was a volunteer at Asbury Methodist Village’s computer club. JCA learned of his skills by referral, and contacted him about setting up a JCA-sponsored SeniorTech program at Asbury.

Before volunteering, Nisbet spent 26 years in the Navy as a cryptologist. Though not an Asbury resident, his service there was an outlet for his technological skills.

In 2001, SeniorTech set up classes in a bare room in nearby Lakeforest Mall. Two years later, they moved to a specially made computer room at Asbury, where they continue teaching classes today.

The classes are not limited to Asbury residents, and about half of the participants come from outside the retirement community.

Nisbet remembered a 90-year-old woman who once took his class. “She really stuck through it,” he said.

“When something like that [happens], a person who has never used a computer before, whose grandkids want them to send email, those kind of moments are very nice. You’re also always learning [as a teacher],” Nisbet added.

Similarly, LeVine enjoys teaching his students what he knows about word processing. “There are a lot of things you can do. There are many shortcuts that can enhance what you are printing or typing up. I also get a lot of feedback from the students like, ‘Isn’t that interesting. I didn’t know you could do that,’” he said.

Over the years, LeVine has met a few interesting people through SeniorTech. He once realized he hadn’t paid much attention to a woman who was quiet. After class, he spoke to her one-on-one to make sure she understood the content.

“I discovered she was the wife of an ambassador from South America. I can’t remember what country it was. She was just so lovely, and I had a long chat with her. It was so great that she had picked up a lot of things we went over in class.”

He also once met Tipper Gore, when her husband was vice-president of the U.S. The second lady was taking a tour of SeniorTech and even posed for a photo with him. JCA gave her a chocolate computer. “She got a kick out of it,” he laughed.

Both LeVine and Nisbet plan on remaining with SeniorTech. “I’m hooked on the program now. I will be involved as long as I’m in the area,” Nisbet said

For more information

JCA interviews all volunteers, and candidates must provide a resume and references. If interested in volunteering, call Robin Black at (240) 395-0916 or email seniortech@accessjca.org.

Classes cost from $15 to $80, depending on the course level and number of class sessions. For example, the six-session beginner course, “Computer Basics with Windows 7,” costs $80.

For more information about SeniorTech or to see the class catalogue, visit www.accessjca.org/article/18/programs/embrace-technology.

The Gaithersburg location can be reached at (301) 987-6291, the Rockville location’s phone is (301) 255-4200, and the Alexandria office’s number is (703) 941-1007.