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Grants help city meet 'Digital Excellence' goals

"Smart Communities" manager Norma Sanders assists Michellay Wells, a senior at Perspectives Calumet High School, at the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp.

Online job training, after-school activities for kids and free netbook computer giveaways for families who complete computer training are getting a huge boost across Chicago, thanks to two federal stimulus grants totaling $16.05 million.

"These grants allow us to deliver on many elements of the city's 'Digital Excellence' plan, which focuses on providing high-speed computer access, relevant local online content and affordable computer software, hardware, education and awareness," said Hardik Bhatt, former chief information office for the city of Chicago.

The grants comprise:

*$7.07 million to open six FamilyNet centers in five previously identified underserved neighborhoods, and to give away 1,200 netbooks to families who complete introductory computer classes.

The five "Smart Communities" neighborhoods are Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen.

The grant is being matched with another $1.77 million from local not-for-profit groups, including the Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corp., among others.

*$8.97 million to create 20 computer centers throughout the city and to expand digital-training resources at 132 sites that already provide local news and resources online, including libraries, city colleges, CHA developments and youth and senior centers. The grant is being matched with another $3.85 million from the city of Chicago, the City Colleges, the Chicago Community Trust and the Chicago Housing Authority.

The $8.8 million Broadband Adoption Grant money will build six new "FamilyNet" centers in the five "Smart Communities" neighborhoods by early 2011. Families will go to these free centers to learn basic computer skills and everyday tasks such as online banking, job searching and financial planning. Families who complete the initial training class receive free netbook computers.

The money also enables:

*The neighborhoods of Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen to host new Business Resource Networks -- sites where small-business owners can use and learn about technology.

*Continue the Digital Youth Summer Jobs program, which last summer gave 59 young people training and work experience at local web development and technology companies.

*Expand the YOUmedia online social-media teen meeting place. Currently operating at the Harold Washington Library downtown, it will be expanded to three library branches -- West Humboldt Park Library, Lozano Library in Pilsen and Thurgood Marshall Library in southwest Chicago.

*Create neighborhood news portals similar to the Pilsen portal (pilsenportal.org), aimed at making the community a "digital excellence" center, to Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Lawn, Englewood and Humboldt Park. The city's community partners will hire five "tech organizers" to get the portals started.

The second, $12.77 million Public Computer Center grant will coordinate with the Chicago Career Tech program, which offers technology training for laid-off white-collar workers.

Career Tech participants will have the option of doing their community-service learning obligations at the 152 centers -- the 20 new centers and the 132 others that provide neighborhood computer access.

The money will enable a new "Smart Chicago Trust Fund" at the Chicago Community Trust to hire six "master" teachers to mentor the training leaders at the 152 sites. The goal is to deliver 200,000 new hours of technology training through the Digital Skills Initiative, aiming to reach 20,000 Chicagoans in English, Spanish, Polish and Chinese.

Rishi Desai, the Smart Communities program manager for Humboldt Park, said one of the programs being started in the neighborhood's two FamilyNet centers -- called Civic 2.0 -- aims to educate people about using Facebook, YouTube and other online resources for community improvements.

"We will talk about how to use Facebook to organize around getting more affordable housing, or how residents with diabetes can use YouTube videos to help control their condition," he said. "We'll show how to use online resources to find out about your local alderman and how you can volunteer in the neighborhood."

Michellay Wells, an 18-year-old senior at Perspectives Calumet High School in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, has worked with younger children, helping them create videos and photos of their community, and wrote poems and produced audio stories in a Digital Youth Voices program launched by Urban Gateways and the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. Her short film of her city block, "Where I'm From," drew plaudits in a OneChicago OneNational contest.

She gained experience in her chosen field of communications arts by working with a local XM radio station, recording vignettes about her community.

"I love recording, using the camera, and writing poems and music," she said.

Wells intends to continue working with Smart Communities by helping set up an Auburn Gresham community web portal.

Richard Adam Pagan, a 16-year-old junior at Roberto Clemente High School, created online public-service announcement videos to help people learn about diabetes when he participated in the neighborhood's Digital Youth Summer Jobs program. The participants received a free laptop computer and free mobile Internet access from Sprint for six months.

The announcements focused on the high rate of diabetes among the neighborhood's Puerto Rican population, and featured local restaurants where people could eat healthy on a tight budget.

"We found a healthy spinach burrito at Cafe Kalao, at Division and Rockwell, and used that as a focal point of the video," said Pagan, who now works after school helping organize events at Batey Urbano, a technology center in the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican community that hosts poetry slams, dance nights and computer design training for young people.

"We also encouraged people to start their own backyard gardens so they could grow vegetables and eat a more healthy diet," Pagan said.

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