Niagara Gazette

Features

November 14, 2010

Helping senior cross the digital divide

Seniors can learn to love computers

NIAGARA FALLS — It happens all the time on television. Newspapers are guilty as well. Viewers and readers who want more information about any topic are told to go online.

That’s great for people who keep a laptop nearby but for senior citizens without computers all this web/Internet talk makes them feel completely out of the cultural loop.

To make matters worse, their children and grandchildren are staying in touch through e-mails and social networking sites, sharing pictures and stories. No computer, no prom pictures.

“I call it e-exclusion,” said Kim Tomaszewski, who recently started a business called Net Crackers, which teaches the technically impaired. “There is a digital divide,” she added. “It’s almost like not being able to read and write.”

Tomaszewski started the business in July after a friend convinced her she would be perfect in such a business. She met with several advisors from SCORE, which provides retired business people to advise small business.

Then she did some market research. “I called 15 facilities. My goal was to receive five positive responses. I received 13.”

So she leaped. The former charter school teacher purchased five laptops and got started, offering private lessons and group classes.

One of her first students was Louise Lascelle, a Niagara Falls real estate associate broker at Metro Paradiso, who had been working with a computer since Multiple Listings became computerized, but who didn’t know how to do anything else but check homes for sale.

“I was having to fax things because I didn’t know how to attach to e-mails,” Lascelle said. After a lesson with Tomaszewski, she learned not only how to attach documents to e-mails, but to send and share photos. She also learned how to set up a Facebook page to help her stay in touch with family and friends.

Becky Conde, the senior services program coordinator for the city of Niagara Falls is working to get Net Cracker classes set up at the John Duke and LaSalle Senior centers in January. She said that learning to use a computer is vital for connecting seniors to their families.

“There are so many people who have no family left here,” said Conde. “Their kids who are away are not calling each other (on the phone), they’re e-mailing and Facebooking and their grandparents want to do the same thing.”

The Net Cracker classes are designed to start from the very beginning of computer usage. Tomaszewski shows her students how to turn the computer on.

“The biggest thing I’ve found to do is to make the classes fun,” she said. “Because they’re very intimidated.”

She describes classes where students have learned to access cooking videos, family genealogy and video games. She even shows the classes how to use Google for information and to how to locate and play favorite TV shows they might have missed. Her classes really seem interested in how to share photos from computer to computer.

“Photos are a big thing,” she said, “because nobody has hard (paper) copies of pictures anymore.”

Her computers are set up so that students can easily learn how to use Skype, a free video conferencing website, much like a video phone.

“One of my ladies has a grandchild in Ireland she never sees,” Tomaszewski said, noting the woman was particularly interested in using the video feature on her computer. “Skype is free. All you need is a web cam and in the newer computers it is built in.”

In all, the leap to starting her own business was worth it, Tomaszewski said. “I have the best job in the whole world.” Those who want to learn more can contact her at 531-0494 or visit thenetcracker.com.

The Niagara Falls native who now lives in North Tonawanda said that after she teaches someone the basics of computer usage, their life changes.

“Their quality of life is so much better,” she added. “It opens them to a world they’ve been excluded from.”

LEARN MORE

WHO: Net Crackers

WHAT: Kim Tomaszewski provides introductory computer instruction.

MORE INFO: Call 531-0494 or visit thenetcracker.com.

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