When the alarm goes off at 6:15am on a Saturday and it is still cold and dark outside, I promise myself that one of these days I am going to close down the PC education project and enjoy two day weekends all year round. I have been working very hard on realising this goal and so when I was recently approached by another project to take in some learners I threw up my hands and protested adamantly “No, no!” We don’t have classes in winter. Besides, I’m trying to wind the whole thing down… Well, maybe just one small class of 10. But 10 max. OK?”
Yesterday we enrolled 60 new learners, aged between 12 and 60, into the program.
The PC Education project started just over 4 years ago when a group of colleagues and I decided that we wanted to give back more to the community than the occasional Christmas party at a childrens’ shelter. We had the whole ‘teach a man to fish’ thing in mind and, as a group, the best thing we could teach others was basic computer skills.
We started with a handful of learners, using our laptops on plastic furniture at a downtown women’s shelter. Four years later, after many happy ups and stressful downs, late nights preparing and printing training material, and early Saturday mornings, the project teaches a basic beginners course, MS Word and Excel levels 1 and 2, to up to 100 learners at a time. The courses are free and are taught in the training rooms at the company where I work. We have partnered with a company called NextGen Training Solutions who provide us with training material for the MS courses free of charge and at the end of each year we hold a little graduation ceremony to recognise the commitment and achievements of the learners – many of whom hardly have enough transport money to come to class each week.
Some of you in first world countries you may be wondering why there is a need for such a project. Here in South Africa, unemployment is high and the majority of those who work only just scrape by on minimum wages. Unlike Western countries, most homes do not have PCs or laptops and neither do many schools, especially those in the poorer communities. Computer courses at a various institutions can cost anything between R800 and R3000 per subject.
I am the only one of the original group that is still involved in the project but since then many more volunteers from work have stuck up there hands and given up their Saturdays to come in and train our learners, for absolutely no financial gain. I have met some really incredible people who I would not normally have got to meet in a company that employees a few thousand people. They have added a tremendous amount of value to the project and because of their suggestions and expertise we are constantly able to keep improving our offerings.
I have also come across learners who have rewarded me greatly by their enthusiasm and commitment to learning. From young school leavers who are keen to improve themselves and their prospects of getting a decent job, to a handyman dad who just wanted to learn how to operate a PC so that his children will think he’s smart. And he is very smart indeed. He can now do things in Excel that I don’t even know how to pronounce. At the end of one term, one woman in her 50’s told me, with tears in her eyes, that she never would have believed that she would one day be able to use a computer and that now she could teach her grandchildren how to operate a PC.
And of course, none of this would be possible if it were not for the company that I work for. The project enjoys the support right from the very top of the organisation. All training rooms, equipment, internet access and refreshments are provided to us at no charge. Every time I have hit a hurdle and approached an individual or department for assistance, I always get a positive response and sometimes even a little more than I ask for.
So when I drive out of the building on a Saturday after teaching, with a big smile on my face, I know that no matter what I tell myself, this project isn’t closing down any time soon.