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Gloria Blankenship is just one of the Lake County residents who received a refurbished computer at last week's PCs for People event. Photo by Jill Innis.

Computers for Lake County

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Fifty Lake County families are a little more tech savvy these days.

Thanks to a partnership between the Blandin Foundation and the nonprofit PCs for People with some facilitation by the Lake Superior School District, 50 low-income families received free refurbished computers last Wednesday.

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"I think this is really going to help bridge the gap in our school district and we're just really looking forward to it," said Kris Lee, technology director at the school district.

Scott Lumbar a computer technician at PCs for People, was at Two Harbors High School last Wednesday, handing each pre-approved family that showed up a processor, monitor and keyboard after they completed a 20-minute course put on by another PCs for People staff member.

"There's such a huge technological gap," he said. "I'm glad we're able to help bridge that."

PCs for People is a nonprofit founded in 1998. The St. Paul, Minn., based company accepts donated computers, refurbishes them and gives them to low-income families. Thanks to a partnership with the Blandin Foundation, Lake County was granted the 50 computers distributed last week.

With broadband internet soon to be available in the entire county, community leaders have been looking for ways to educate the public and ensure the new service is used to its full potential. Lake County was named a Blandin Broadband Community in November 2012, one of nine selected across rural Minnesota. Since that time, the county has convened a leadership team and engaged the community in a two-year project to make the best use of information and services that broadband can deliver.

A major goal of the groups has been to engage people who are traditionally disconnected, like elderly people and low-income families. This program is one of many recently instituted that will, organizers hope, do just that.

"It's the perfect storm to get technology into our community," Lee said.

At the beginning of the school year, Lee sent applications for the program home with district students who are eligible for free- and reduced-lunches. Eighty-nine families applied for a computer, and a committee ranked them according to a number of criteria in order to narrow the list to 50 recipients.

Applicants who had children or no computers in their homes took priority, Lee said. Every family that applied and didn't have a computer got one, she added.

In an era with countless online tools available for parents and students, it's important for families to be connected, she said. Many of teachers are putting their syllabi online and integrating internet into the curriculum. Parents can check their kids' grades, attendance, and what they had for lunch on the district's online Parent Portal.

"For families to not have computers in their homes puts students at a big disadvantage," Lee said. As for Parent Portal, "We're really trying to push everyone to use that so we're all on the same team."

Low-income families also have the opportunity to apply for discounted internet. Information about that service was issued last week.

The district's community education program is also offering classes for the technically challenged, covering a range of topics like how to use an iPod or how to protect yourself while still making the most of social networking sites.

Another initiative, beginning in early November, will pair student volunteers with seniors in the community. The kids will help their elder partners with any technology questions they have, bridging a technical and generational divide.

"We're throwing out classes quite often right now," Lee said. "If you want to learn something, there are so many opportunities."

Lumbar, who has distributed countless computers over the past two years, said that helping families get connected is always satisfying. He still remembers the most satisfied customer -- a little boy in Hibbing who said that the day he got his computer was the best day of his life.

"It gave me goose bumps. It was awesome to make an impression in his life," he said.

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