SANTA CRUZ -- Nereida Robles remembers the day just before Christmas two years ago when a group of 20 families with high school students drove through the rain and showed up at her door.
They came from all over -- Gilroy, Salinas, Hollister -- looking for computers, knowing Robles could help. And she did.
The computers were being given away as part of a Chicana/Latina Foundation grant to help mostly Spanish-speaking, low-income families get computers and Internet access.
But people were skeptical about the program at first.
"People didn't believe it. They were asking if it was true that they were giving away computers," Robles said. "The challenging part was getting people to believe it would happen. But first one person got a computer, and as other people saw it they believed it, and the word spread."
Robles was instrumental in spreading that word. She had become involved with the Chicana/Latina Foundation after receiving a scholarship from the group while earning her master's degree in social work from San Jose State University. When she heard about its program to connect people to the Internet, she knew she had to help. In her job as a bilingual community coordinator for the Santa Cruz City Schools district, she had seen firsthand how the lack of access to technology made it harder for some students to keep up.
So Robles got to work telling people about the program and single-handedly signed up nearly 150 families to receive computers. Robles and a group of high school students also helped to teach families how to use their newly acquired computers -- everything from using a mouse to navigating email to looking up student attendance records.
And now she wants to do it again.
Chicana/Latina Foundation, a Burlingame nonprofit, is working in partnership with the San Francisco-based Latino Community Foundation on a new campaign to help close the digital divide for Latinos, called "Get Latinos Connected." The groups have received a grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund and hope to connect more than 3,000 low-income Latino families in the Bay Area to the Internet and supply them with refurbished laptops.
Although the grant will help the groups reach out to families, there is no money available to buy the laptops. That's where Wish Book readers can help. Each gift of $125 will allow the campaign to give a refurbished laptop to a low-income family. To qualify, families have to attend computer literacy classes and get Internet service at home.
According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey, Internet access has increased among Latinos since 2008, but only 52 percent of Latino households are connected to the Internet at home.
Robles was amazed at how the families in the program responded to using their new computers. "People were crying because they could connect with relatives through Skype or email, or receive pictures and videos of family that they hadn't seen in a long time," Robles said.
For other families, the computers and Internet access have been a way for their children to get ahead in school.
Maria Martinez says having a computer has benefitted her four children. "My husband and I realized that having a computer and the Internet were essential tools for our kids to do well in school," Martinez said. Her oldest, daughter Maritza -- now a sophomore at Cal State Monterey Bay -- used their computer to apply to colleges during winter break.
For Socorro Vazquez, learning how to use a computer encouraged her to spread her knowledge. "The first time I came I was a parent learning, but then I became a tutor and was helping. Now I'm able to use a computer for work, and I can do things like check grades online for my daughter, Nicole."
The program has rippled even beyond the local community. Vazquez and her daughter recently returned to the rural Oaxacan village in Mexico where she grew up, Santiaga Laxopa, to teach the families how to use computers.
Now, she regularly communicates over the Internet with her mother and sister, and gleefully related that her 87-year-old mother began using Facebook.
Alicia Orozco, a project coordinator with the Chicana/Latina Foundation, said the program aims to give people resources to learn, make decisions and become informed consumers.
"To give people this power and see their eyes as they discover this incredible world is priceless," Orozco said. "It reminds us how privileged we are."
Each gift of $125 will allow the "Get Latinos Connected" program to provide a refurbished laptop to a low-income family. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the "Get Latinos Connected" program, go to www.chicanalatina.org/programs/getConnected.html or http://latinocf.org/program-investments.html.