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After 12 years of service, the LqP Computer Commuter nears the end of its road

sprig by Posted in Broadband

Lac qui Parle’s Computer Commuter is a stand-out example of what can happen when equitable, community-powered thinking meets future-forward planning. Conceived 12 years ago, the Computer Commuter was a unique solution to combat rural internet access issues. Not only did the program offer internet connections for rural people who didn’t have them, it went one step further to ensure residents had the devices they needed and the skills to use them. We’re a proud early supporter of this work and, now that it’s coming to a close after more than a decade of success, want to recognize the difference it made for those living in LqP County.

Ryan Feiock, journalist for the Western Guard, shares the story and lasting impact of the Computer Commuter in this recent article (shared with permission).

After 12 years of service, the LqP Computer Commuter nears the end of its road

By Ryan Feiock

The Computer Commuter has services the six communities of Lac qui Parle County for over a decade, providing access to free internet, computers and help learning technology. Its 12 year ride will come to an end June 22.

Framework for the program began in 2009 when the TDF Foundation was searching for a potential site to install a computer lab in rural Minnesota. They approached Collin Peterson, the then representative of District 7, which led to the creation of a task force formed by the Lac qui Parle County Economic Development Authority led by Director Pam Lehmann.

Through that task force, it was determined that one town just wasn’t enough, and that a mobile lab would better fit the needs of the whole county.

An application was submitted to the TDF Foundation in February 2010 to fun the purchase of a handicap accessible mobile computer lab that would travel to communities within Lac qui Parle County, allowing residents access to computers and internet at no charge.

By the end of March 2010, the communities of Bellingham, Boyd, Dawson, Madison, Marietta and Nassau supported the project, showing interest in having the services available for their citizens.

It was realized, near the approval of the application, the cost of the mobile unit would be significantly more than the TDF Foundation grant would provide. Computer Lab Committee members agreed they needed to search for more funding, so they submitted an application to the Blandin Foundation as part of their LightSpeed Grant Program to help with the purchase and modifications needed to turn the bus into a mobile lab.

With that work put in place, everything started coming together that spring. The TDF Foundation provided funding for the computers and technology for a computer lab on May 14, 2010, and the Blandin Foundation approved the county’s request on June 3, 2010.

The Commuter had its heartbeat, but it needed someone to run it. Step in Mary Quick, a junior high science teacher at Yellow Medicine East. She interviewed for the coordinator position in the spring of 2010.

“Along with having a strong, basic technology background, another mandatory requirement for the position was the ability to drive a 20 foot bus. That’s when I came on board,” said Quick.

Fruition came in October 2010 when the Lac qui Parle Computer Commuter began its service.

The program took some time to take off completely, but one it did, Quick was pretty busy.

“It was accepted at first with trepidation,” said Quick. “I think many of the early users just came to check it out. When they discovered the atmosphere was friendly and non-threatening, there wasn’t a set curriculum and a person could get help with whatever they were trying to improve on or learn at their own pace, the service proved much needed and successful.

“For many residents 60 plus years old, they started with the basics: turning on the laptop, practicing old manual typewriter keyboarding skills and mastering eye/hand and mouse maneuvers. As time progressed, with continual visits, these people gained computer skills and confidence. They also realized the value of technology in their personal and professional lives,” continued Quick.

“In 2010, residents were skeptical about personal tech devices. Now, most have a smartphone, email and a laptop or tablet. They also have purchased internet for their home,” added Quick.

The program has also been utilized by younger generations.

“Early on, young people used the bus to take advantage of the fact we had current operating systems on all of our laptops, of which was not the case in many of these resident’s homes,” said Quick. “We also offered free access to internet and printing, and assistance with homework. It was a safe place to hang out with others.”

As time has progressed, so has the need to have access to the computers and the internet, and to have general knowledge of what is needed to gain access to accounts online.

“I feel at first, residents used the bus at the urging of their family in order to start connected (like with Facebook),” said Quick. “Now, residents realize technology is here to stay and constantly changing, and you need to adapt to it. It starts with an email account that allows one to set up accounts for their healthcare, utilities, retirement, social media, etc. Some embrace the challenge of gaining digital literacy to empower themselves, others are just resigned to the fact it’s a necessary evil to survive in today’s world.”

Those utilizing the lab have mainly been females, who account for over 60 percent of attendees.

In the first six years, 61 percent of the users were over 60 years old. That has grown quite a bit in the Commuter’s 12 years, with it going up to 95 percent of usage being 60 or older.

There is also an easily seen benefit to having made the lab mobile, as the four communities that are without a public library (Bellingham, Boyd, Mariette and Nassau) have had a higher percentage of usage versus Dawson and Madison, which each have libraries with access to computers.

This support and show of need has helped drive Quick, and she has taken a lot of good memories from it.

“Early on, a resident was using Skype to visit with her son in Australia. Several minutes into the conversation, he said ‘Mom, it looks like you’re on a bus?’ She laughed and said, ‘I am, I am! I’m on the Computer Commuter.”

KARE 11’s Boyd Huppert even took a ride on the bus to put together a segment for “Land of 10,000 Stories.”

“We had a great time and there was a lot of laughter. One Boyd resident told him ‘What happens on the bus, stays on the bus.’ That was the end quote for the segment,” said Quick. “Learning technology can be frustrating and not instantaneous. The quote was referring to not wanting our kids to see how hard we’re having to work to catch up with technology.”

Quick has also received help in providing training to those coming to the lab, including when Dawson-Boyd service learning students spent time with residents.

“It’s wonderful seeing the connection between generations, working together to achieve a goal,” said Quick about the students.

The outpouring of support has helped drive Quick to have attended conventions and workshops in the twin cities, where people were somewhat astounded that a rural community had such a free offering for its residents.

There has also been individuals who showed their appreciation for the program monetarily, with a granddaughter honor her Madison grandfather’s birthday with a donation and an individual putting part of their estate toward the program in February 2016 – which also received generous donations to match the bequest.

That donation was from Marie Kittelson, a Madison resident who passed away in 2016 and gifted a sum of money that needed to be matched before the program could receive it.

“She did not want to be the sole financer of the program,” said Quick. “I collected $41,000 from entities from each of the six communities the bus travels to. The donors, sometimes individuals and sometimes foundations or businesses, saw the success and the need to continue the services so they gladly donated. “The call went out and was answered generously and without hesitation.”

This was huge for the program, as funding was running out in 2016. Which could have been the Commuter’s last year.

Along with all the positives came the scarier moments for Quick and the mobile computer lab.

One winter day, she stuck around a little too long in Marietta when a resident was using the lab. When 5 finally came and they left, it was white out conditions for Quick’s drive home.

“Next week, the resident apologized and I said had I known, I would have made him leave sooner,” said Quick.

She also literally drove the back wheels off the bus.

“Humorous, but expensive event,” said Quick.

Overall, the Computer Commuter has been a joy for Quick, getting to help people learn, and then hearing gratitude and a ‘thank you’ in return.

“I am so proud to be a park of the Lac qui Parle Computer Commuter program. Our mission is to increase the digital literacy and digital inclusion of our residents. Well into our 12th year, I can say without hesitation we have accomplished that goal. I think the idea of a mobile lab that could bring the equipment and assistance to six different communities instead of one site, was genius for delivering these services throughout our rural county,” said Quick.

“I was hired to help people gain digital literacy, drive and maintain the bus. Once the County EDA office closed, I became the lone worker for the LqP Computer Commuter program. I wrote and applied for grants, reached out to entities for partnerships and collaborations and continued my training in technology. Being a Minnesota licensed educator, I understand the need of practice and repetition to gain and/or increase skills and confidence. I truly enjoy working with people and want everyone to find success on the bus. I am fortunate to have a job that gives me joy, a sense of accomplishment,” continued Quick.

The program has received wide support, from its conception with the help of the TDF Foundation, former congressman Collin Peterson and the Blandin Foundation, and the added support from the Southwest Adult Basic Education, Dawson Community Foundation, MN Valley REC, the Bush Foundation, Foundation for Rural Service, Minnesota Intelligent Rural Community, the City of Marietta, the Madison Community Foundation, CARES Act grant, and Pioneer Seeds.

The final partnerships that the program has are with Ag Processing, which houses the bus; Farmers Mutual Telephone Company providing internet at all six sites; Lowell Tyler, who services the equipment; the six communities that provide electricity; and Southwest Adult Basic Education, which provides funds monthly to help deliver services.

Quick also worked out discounts at local tech businesses for residents that came and learned technology on the bus. This included Farmers Mutual, Rural Solutions, TAC Computers, and Tyler Programing and Consulting.

Even as the program drives towards the sunset, there is still a crowd that utilizes the Computer Commuter’s services.

“I have regulars that show up weekly and stay for hours, to continue to practice basics or add to their skill set. I also have those residents who know they can pop in and get their question answered and be on their way. Each community has its own personality and vibe,” said Quick.

For Quick, it is bittersweet that the program is coming to an end. She feels that the Commuter has served its purpose well, but there will still be a need for what it provides.

“I am so proud and grateful to have been a part of this innovative and unique project that recognized and addressed the digital gap our rural residents had,” said Quick. “The largest regret of ending the program is cutting off access to internet, computers and help to those residents who can’t afford purchasing internet or a device, or those who will be isolated geographically from a public computer or WiFi network or help.”

For a deeper dive into the history and impact of the Computer Commuter, visit the Blandin on Broadband blog.

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