D.C. nonprofit offers free tech training

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Rebekah Sewell

Byte Back, a D.C. nonprofit that helps low and moderate income adults learn to use computers for employment, utilizes volunteers to teach its classes. Here, some students in its Office Track class learn to use Microsoft Word and Excel.

Growing up in an underserved neighborhood of Atlanta, Ga., Meico Whitlock, 30, was always “fascinated by technology.” By volunteering with Byte Back, a D.C. nonprofit that provides computer classes in disadvantaged local communities, he’s now able to help others succeed. He finds Byte Back’s classes “improve the lives of everyday people,” he said.

Whitlock originally began volunteering for First Time Computers, a now-closed organization that provided refurbished computers to underprivileged locals. The program eventually found new life within Byte Back, which provides inexpensive — and often free — computers, computer training and employment assistance.

Byte Back recognizes that technological training has the potential to “level the economic playing field for underserved communities,” he explained.

The program is unique because it is run almost entirely by volunteers. All classes are taught by volunteer instructors, who are working or retired technology and office professionals, AmeriCorps members, and even some Byte Back graduates who want to give back.

Classes for all levels

The program offers three levels of classes, including introductory classes for students who have never used computers, Microsoft Office classes for students looking for an office job, and computer certification classes for those entering the IT (information technology) field.

Their basic computer classes, PC for Beginners 1 and 2, have seniors-only sections. Beginners 1 teaches the basics of computers — including using a mouse, typing, online searching, and using the Internet to research health issues, government services and potential jobs.

Beginners 2 focuses on improving participants’ Internet and typing skills, and introduces how to access and send email. Students also learn to create and manage files and edit text.

Both classes involve 20 hours of classroom learning. While the classes are priced at $400 each, those who meet certain criteria for low income can take the classes free of charge.

Gaining office skills

Diane Dallas, 59, had previous experience with computers but wanted to take classes with Byte Back. “I took classes several years ago for websites and HTML, [a computer language that prepares text and graphics for the Web],” she said. But her skills were a little out of date, and she needed a refresher. Many of Byte Back’s students are in the same boat.

Since she had some experience, Dallas tested out of the Beginners series and enrolled in Office Track, the intermediate class for students hoping to use their acquired skills in an office job.

She already had a position working part time as an administrative assistant for the Department of Employment Services in D.C., where she helped other seniors find jobs. She said that Office Track helped sharpen her skills for work, as she regularly uses Microsoft Word and Excel when taking case notes and interviewing the candidates.

Many of the classes culminate in presentations and speeches by the students. They utilize their skills with Microsoft PowerPoint, choosing a topic that speaks to them.

Dallas’s topic was African American opera singers. It gave her the opportunity to perform an aria for her class, which established her as an entertainer for Byte Back events.

Eric VanDreason recently finished an AmeriCorps assignment with Byte Back. He said that observing the presentations was his favorite part of teaching.

“They were executing their own ideas with confidence and delivering them to their peers. There suddenly existed a network, or community, of shared experience between classmates, which was a really encouraging environment to work within. The depth of genuine supportiveness between everyone was something I felt proud to be a part of,” he said.

Training entrepreneurs, seniors

Byte Back also offers unique opportunities for potential entrepreneurs through Enterprise DC — a year-long program that provides free computer training, mentoring, loan assistance and financial advice for participants who want to launch a small business.

Participants receive training on Microsoft Office and Access, QuickBooks, graphic and website design, social media marketing and e-commerce. Upon completion, they receive refurbished computers and QuickBooks software. For more information, visit http://byteback.org/enterprise-dc.

VanDreason was inspired to teach classes at Byte Back to help out older adults like his parents, who didn’t feel that computers were for them. They were among the many seniors — especially those without prior experience with such technology — who feel intimidated by computers, or don’t see any benefit in learning to use them.

“My parents avoided our computer for the large part of 10 years before resigning to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to ignore its uses forever. So I taught them here and there when they were stuck on something,” he explained.

Eventually, VanDreason decided to become a full-time member of AmeriCorps, the national community service group (sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps).

When AmeriCorps placed him with Byte Back and he began teaching classes there, VanDreason discovered the schedule can often be grueling.

“An AmeriCorps instructor will have anywhere from three to six classes to plan for, including weekly workshops. [The workshops] were on a rotating schedule and were focused, three-hour sessions centered around one computer program or concept,” explained VanDreason.

Volunteer opportunities

Meico Whitlock, the volunteer mentioned above, works full-time as a digital communications consultant for the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). He agrees that his work at Byte Back can be demanding, but says the payoff is worth it.

“When I first started volunteering at Byte Back, I was really concerned about being able to effectively teach evening classes after working all day. But it turns out that teaching at Byte Back has been the highlight of my days,” he said.

“It’s just something about entering a classroom full of eager students who are deeply grateful and appreciative of any amount of time you can spend sharing your knowledge with them,” he continued.

The hard work clearly shows. Though she didn’t have a class with VanDreason or Whitlock, Dallas repeatedly complimented the level of dedication of her teachers. “The classes are organized and professional, and the teachers have a passion for what they’re doing,” she said.

For Whitlock, the passion is personal. “When I learned about Byte Back’s mission — and reflected on all the opportunities I had as a young man who grew up in a community with limited resources and benefited from programs like Byte Back’s — I knew then that it would be organization I would be proud to serve,” he said.

To learn more about classes, call (202) 529-3395 or see www.byteback.org. Those interested in volunteer opportunities may contact Byte Back’s volunteer coordinator, Siera Toney, at the same number or email stoney@byteback.org. Volunteer orientations are held once a month.

To donate a laptop or contribute, contact office manager Andrea Mack at (202) 803-2704 or amack@byteback.org.