old_computer.jpgIn an age where personal computing options range from desktops to tablets to cellphones, it can be hard to imagine a subset of the population that lacks even basic email and search engine skills.

But that population exists, and its members face a “massive gap” in opportunities, both personally and professionally, said Karl Robillard, a spokesman for the nonprofit St. Anthony’s Foundation in San Francisco.

Enter the Tenderloin Technology Lab, a program jointly run by St. Anthony’s and San Francisco Network Ministries in partnership with the University of San Francisco that offers basic computer classes as well as drop-in computer access hours.

Today the center is unveiling its newly refurbished lab, which includes 50 new computers recently donated by USF, Robillard said.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark also made a donation so the lab could buy more RAM space and upgrade all the software on the computers.

“The computers are used but are still in good condition,” Robillard said. “USF keeps their equipment state-of-the-art on campus, so when the computers are two or three years old, rather than get rid of it they identify community partners who they can donate it to.”

About 15 USF students and staff also volunteer every semester to maintain the facility, keep the network operating smoothly, and teach month-long computing classes to clients who need them.

Robillard said about 60 percent of the homeless and low-income clients who use the Tenderloin Technology Lab need computer training, while about 40 percent are familiar with the technology but don’t have access to printing or computing services.

The computing classes focus on getting clients comfortable with computers and teaching them basics such as sending email and attachments and using Google calendar.

The lab’s volunteers also try to show clients why and how computers are relevant to them, including using them for job searches, transit schedules, and getting in touch with friends and family, Robillard said.

“We’ll say, ‘OK, where were you born?'” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘Fort Worth, Texas,’ so we’ll go to Google maps and pull up the street where they grew up. They’re absolutely fascinated.”

Robillard said it’s hard for people comfortable with technology to understand the need, but about 100 people use the Tenderloin Technology Lab daily. Those attending the computing classes tend to be over 35 and didn’t have access to technology growing up.

St. Anthony’s Foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries used to run separate computer labs, and in 2001, USF began donating manpower to the St. Anthony’s facility, Robillard said.

Starting in about 2005, demand for the lab shot up as job seekers began to realize they needed to apply online.

“All of a sudden people realized this method of pounding the pavement on foot wasn’t working,” Robillard said. “People bringing in paper resumes were getting turned away at the door.”

USF made an initial hardware donation of 50 computers in 2008, and this January, the school donated 50 more.

A spokeswoman for USF’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good said the students who work at the Tenderloin Technology Lab get to participate in service learning.

“The lab has benefited from a variety of contributions provided by USF service-learners, while in return providing students with opportunities to learn about the digital divide and other social issues directly addressed through its services,” spokeswoman Star Moore said in a statement.

Today’s unveiling event is scheduled to be from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the lab, located on the third floor of the St. Anthony’s Foundation building at 150 Golden Gate Ave.

Newmark, USF President Stephen A. Privett, and lab clients and volunteers are scheduled to speak.

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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