Coronavirus: Free computers from Oakland group helps students sheltering in place

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Brianna Houston's voice is soft but penetrating. She looks away from the camera on the computer as she sings a gospel song. Behind her, her mother, Rachel Butler, and her uncle Dwayne Butler close their eyes as the Oakland high school senior's voice lifts them up into a gospel heaven.

Brianna is a finishing her last semester of high school at Merritt College's Conservatory of Vocal/Instrumental Arts music charter school.

"School was going pretty, pretty good for me because I'm done with all of my high school classes like they require high school classes, so I only take the college classes, so I was barely at the high school anyways." She says. "And then, once I had to stop going to school, it was pretty hard because everything switched to online."

As COVID-19 shut down school districts across the country, schools have had to adapt to online learning in a matter of days and weeks. In California, this has highlighted the digital divide that many cities in the Bay Area face.

According to Tech Exchange, an Oakland-based non-profit that is working to bridge that digital divide gap, 1.5 million residents across the Bay Area, like Brainna, do not have access to a computer at home.

But, a week before the 17-year-old Fruitvale resident was confined to her home due to statewide shelter in place orders, she was able to get a tablet to do school work on and get trained on troubleshooting in case any problems arose -- all for free thanks to Tech Exchange.

Her uncle, Dwayne, works with youth sports and lives near the non-profit's headquarters in Fruitvale.

"I want to learn how to edit video. Because the kids that I'm in contact with, I want to be able to provide them with film (for high school sports recruiters)."

He had little idea where to begin, he told ABC 7.

"I don't have any gadgets at all. I was researching online. How, you know, how I'm gonna do this?"

He walked out of the store with a tablet and a laptop for editing.

"He handed it to me. And, I asked him how much for it? And he told me, he said it's free. He said, 'you don't have to pay anything for it.'"

Since the late 90s, Tech Exchange has provided more than 50,000 refurbished computers and 10,000 hours of digital literacy training to low-income families across the Bay Area.

"We think about digital access as a three legged stool. So in order for someone to be online and be productive online, they need Internet access, says the company CEO Seth Hubbert via a Zoom video chat from his home in Oakland.

"They need a reliable device. And then they need the digital skills to be able to navigate and do what they want," he adds.

The timing for the device could not have been better for Brianna.

"I found out yesterday that I got accepted into Xavier University of Louisiana."

Her mother, Rachel, says despite the coronavirus lockdown, they are going to celebrate Brianna's accomplishment.

"Her graduation may be postponed and...there will be no prom but we're gonna make sure that our family and close friends celebrate the biggest way possible because we're so proud of her."
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