Down with the Digital Divide

Down with the Digital Divide

Biscayne Boulevard’s Hope Church of the Nazarene might not be the first place you’d think of when it comes to graduation ceremonies, but that’s only because you weren’t on hand to see how the facility hosted the recent graduating class from Youth Expressions’s Technology Exploration Center (YE-TEC).

Banners and streamers draped the room, cakes and cookies covered the tables, and a cadre of “Top Chef”-caliber grandmothers served potluck Creole cuisine to graduates and their guests, all of whom came decked out in their Sunday best. There was good reason for the festivities. The grads had just completed computer courses in Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and PC repair.
Cedric Gilomme, a 22-year-old Haitian American, was on hand to receive his sixth certificate. Gilomme started hanging out at the center’s original 79th Street headquarters during high school, basically to take advantage of the free Internet access YE-TEC provides for the community. Ironically, the more he hung out online, the more he became interested in what was happening around him at the center, and before long he was enrolled in the first of several courses he would eventually complete.

With certificates in hand, he hit the job market and now is employed full-time as a data-entry clerk at the Collins Center for Public Policy. “If it wasn’t for Diego and YE-TEC, I wouldn’t have a job,” says Gilomme, referring to program director Diego Barrera.

It’s the kind of story that forms the very foundation of YE-TEC, which began as a nameless set of programs housed within the Center for Haitian Studies and is now a stand-alone offshoot of the eight-year-old, Little Haiti-based Youth Expressions, an organization that provides both a forum and a refuge for neighborhood residents.

After Barrera lost his funding at the center, Youth Expressions executive director Mike Rosenfeld agreed to provide space within YE’s 79th Street offices. Once Diego and his staff of volunteers settled in, however, Barrera and Rosenfeld quickly realized there simply were too many students to accommodate amid the arts, wellness, and fitness programs already offered at the facility.

Then, with a grant from Kimberly Green and the Green Family Foundation, who’d long been involved with YE and were eager to see the organization expand its capacity to train adults in job skills, Diego and his band of volunteers packed up and moved over to a new location at 8345 Biscayne Blvd., where YE-TEC was officially born.

Now, after two years, YE-TEC boasts close to 300 graduates. And while not every grad may have gone on to find gainful employment as a direct result of the coursework, it’s certain that everyone who’s completed even one course has left with a newfound sense of pride and accomplishment.

“These are good people,” says Diego Barrera, “and they want to better themselves. All we do is open the doors and give them the chance.”

Still, Barrera would like to see the organization do more. Currently the Green Family Foundation is YE-TEC’s sole provider, which means things as basic as ink and toner, not to mention updated software, all come from a single source. And though the local nonprofit e-Equality, which aims to bridge the digital divide in Miami-Dade County, did provide the majority of YE-TEC’s 44 computers, the machines were already dated back in 2003, when they were originally donated.

According to Barrera, plans are afoot to add advanced classes in FrontPage, Dreamweaver, Adobe Premier, and Network Plus, which will greatly enhance the employability of the graduates. Also in the works is a full curriculum in Creole, an extremely important addition, considering that 90 percent of YE-TEC’s students are first-generation Haitian Americans. To that end, they’ve recently enlisted Loveta Wynn, an AmeriCorps Vista member whose primary responsibility will be to apply for the grants that will enable YE-TEC to achieve Barrera’s goals.

Till then, though, Barrera and his volunteers will continue to instruct, advise, and encourage their students, age-old computers or not. In other words, they intend not only to bridge the digital divide, but to obliterate it -- no matter what.

To contact YE-TEC and Diego Barrera, call 305-758-3138.