Rosenblum: Championing affordable Internet access

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 2, 2014 - 12:01 PM

Andy Elofson and Casey Sorensen now expect long lines to form an hour or two before they open their doors.

Since the two men were featured in this column 18 months ago, their St. Paul nonprofit, PCs for People, has given away nearly 25,000 refurbished computers to grateful low-income Minnesotans.

Impressive, yes. But in their minds, only halfway to their goal.

In some neighborhoods, mostly in the Twin Cities’ urban core, as many as one-third of the residents still cannot afford Internet access, free computer or not.

Without that connection, it’s tough to check in with a child’s teacher regarding homework and progress, or figure out which bus to take to a job interview, or communicate with loved ones a state, or a continent, away.

But Elofson, the founder, and Sorensen, the executive director, are champs at finding a need and filling it. Through word-of-mouth a year ago, Sorensen connected with Denver-based Mobile Citizen, a high-speed mobile Internet provider with an altruistic founder.

As this new year begins, 7,000 Minnesotans are enjoying unlimited Internet access for $10 a month.

For these families, Elofson said, being wired in at home was only a dream before. “Pay for food, the heating bill, or have Internet?” he said. “At $10 a month, it’s more of a fixture.”

“We always knew [Internet service] was a need,” Sorensen added, “but we never found an avenue for offering it.”

They’ve been humbled by the feedback they’ve received since teaming up with Mobile Citizen. Two weeks ago, Sorensen asked clients to share success stories on the PCs for People website (www.pcsforpeople.org).

“If people’s lives are better, we don’t hear from them,” said Sorensen, who came to PCs for People in 2008 from the corporate world.

But they did hear. Within days, more than 175 users posted tributes, many of them heartfelt and personal.

“I struggled with trying to help my kids with their homework, and that was very depressing to me,” wrote a 37-year-old mother of three. “They now can get the homework help they need online.”

Another client waited regularly for a computer at her local library, feeling pressured to hurry as she hunted for work and filled out job applications. Using the home computer gifted to her by PCs for People, she learned about and enrolled in a program to get a commercial driver’s license.

A 41-year-old with disabilities wrote that not having a computer with Internet access “held me back from making friends or working. It kept me separate from the world.”

Connecting low-income individuals and families to the wired world is what drove Elofson to start PCs for People in 1998. A Mankato social worker and the recently remarried father of six, he jokes that lack of Internet access is hardly a problem for his blended clan, ages 8 to 22.

This work, he said, “helps folks like us remember the need.”

Around 65 percent of their clients are unemployed, Sorensen said. “It’s kind of an alarming number, but I guess that shows we are reaching the right people,” he said.

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