Computer classes offer new links for Roxbury residents

A class learns computer skills at the Action for Boston Community Development. Jake Rozin photo for boston.com

Who knows what eventually pushed Deborah Morgan Thawes of Roxbury to sign up for computer classes last month?

It might have had something to do with her 83-year-old mother buying and learning to use a new computer. Or it might have had something to do with her son, a senior in high school, telling her, quite plainly, “Mom, you need to learn computers.”

One thing is for sure: She is learning now.

“If [my mother] can do it, I can do it,” said a determined Thawes.

She is among dozens of city residents enrolled in computer classes held at the Action for Boston Community Development Parker Hill/Fenway location in Roxbury. ABCD is a neighborhood service center that focuses on families below 125 percent of the poverty level. The center holds programs for adults, youths, and the elderly, including career development, health services, food pantries, and the computer classes.

The classes are funded by a grant from the Mission Hill Fenway Trust Fund. ABCD Parker Hill/Fenway applied for the grant because its computer lab was not being used and it lacked funding to pay for an instructor.

Milagros Arbaje-Thomas, the director of ABCD Parker Hill/Fenway, said the funding “has allowed us to take an educational perspective to how we fight poverty.”

“It is grants such as this one that allow us to keep teaching these classes,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “We take for granted how easy it is for us to use our phones to send pictures or emails.” But for low-income residents, she added, “it is a huge barrier to overcome.”

Diego Rodriguez of Dorchester has a 14-year-old daughter who has learned to use computers at school. He is taking the class not only for himself, but for her.

“As a parent, it is a good idea to know what my daughter is doing and if she is safe,” he said.

Others in the class want to connect with family overseas.

Michele Lagene said she hoped to learn how to send pictures from her camera to her family and friends at home in Haiti. “In Haiti, I worked for 10 years on a computer,” she said. “Now, I am here for more experience.”

The classes cover the basics: a brief history of computers and their parts; navigating the operating system; and some software, including Microsoft Office. Because of interest from the students, the rest of the curriculum is spent on navigating the Internet.

Students learn how to be safe online as they search and book airline flights, pay bills, apply for jobs, and send and receive e-mails.

Rafael Feliciano Cumbas, a junior at Northeastern University, teaches the classes. He grew up in Mission Hill, only blocks from the community center.

“I’ve been doing ABCD since I was four or five years old,” said Cumbas, who attended the summer youth program and later taught at the Phillip Brooks summer camp, funded by ABCD.

“I have benefited greatly from ABCD,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to give back.”

The classes meet three times a week, for three hours each. This is the fourth cycle of classes, which run for five weeks and are offered in Spanish and English.

The skill base of the students varies widely.

“Some students are very advanced,” said Cumbas. “Others are at zero. They help each other, though. It’s nice to see that.”

Prospective students are screened based on several guidelines. They must be Boston residents and meet the income limits, and are asked about motivation and barriers to attendance.

“There is a lot of excitement about this program,” Arbaje-Thomas said. “The wait list is very long. Each day, more people come in asking for spots.”

Each student goes through a pre- and post- course assessment to gauge improvement. They have tests, assignments and evaluations, culminating in a graduation ceremony.

“We take this seriously,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “It is like a college class.”

Thawes also takes the classes seriously – although she jokes about the possibilities that come with being Internet-savvy.

Learning to navigate the Web will make it easier “to spend my husband’s money” shopping online, she said with a smile.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Jake Rozin, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

By Jake Rozin, Globe Correspondent