Big leap across digital divide in Lac qui Parle County, Minn.
BOYD -- Lac qui Parle County is about to leapfrog the rural-urban technology divide by extending broadband Internet access to all corners of the county.
Before all of the fiber-optic cable gets there, Mary Quick is helping all the people who have a far bigger jump to make: They are making the transition from the keyboards of manual typewriters to those of modern laptop computers.
It's actually a lot of fun, but not without its frustrations, said one of those making the transition.
"I almost cried,'' said Connie Lein, of Boyd, of the time when all the neat stuff she had gotten on to her computer screen disappeared in a blink.
She and others have had plenty of occasions to laugh too, as photos of grandkids in California or a live Skype video connection to a son in Australia demonstrated the wonders of the wired world to them.
Welcome to the Computer Commuter, a mobile computer lab and classroom. Its goal is to help residents in this rural county of 8,000 learn how to operate and make computers and the Internet a part of their daily lives.
More than 38 percent of the residents in the five counties in the Upper Minnesota River basin, Lac qui Parle County among them, do not own a home computer, according to information released by the Blandin Foundation's Intelligent Rural Communities project last year.
Quick, the lab's coordinator, is discovering that there also are many rural residents who may own computers but do not know how to operate them.
They lug around old, clunker laptops that their grown children handed off to them in hopes they could e-mail and keep in touch.
They come to see her during her regular visits each week to Boyd, Bellingham, Marietta, Nassau, Dawson and Madison. Quick drives a small transit bus to each town, plugs into a designated spot, and opens the doors.
Inside are seven computer stations, each with a brand new laptop connected to the Internet.
The computers and access are available for free.
Best of all, Quick is there to offer one-on-one help and walk the newcomers to this technological world through the paces.
Among them are a few adolescents, but for the most part her growing list of students are people 50-plus years of age to well into their 80s, she said. Most are people who have not had the need to become familiar with computers through their work, and now are looking to learn how to use them.
Most of them, Quick said, have to look back to their years with manual typewriters in high school for the last experience they had with a "keyboard.''
"Turning the darn thing on,'' said Fred Eckhardt of Boyd when asked what was the most difficult part for him. Eckhardt was seated Wednesday at the station next to Lein during the Computer Commuter's visit to Boyd. He was surfing the Internet in search of old postcards from towns in Minnesota and South Dakota.
Collecting these historic cards is his passion, Eckhardt said. It was also his motivation for coming to the Computer Commuter. He realized that if he was ever going to realize his quest of collecting one card from every town in the two states, he had better find his way to eBay.
Quick said people have been coming to the Computer Commuter for these and other reasons ever since October, when the mobile lab project was launched. She said the first month saw more than 100 people come to learn. The numbers have varied through the winter, but every month sees an influx of new people. Many users are regulars who return both for the lessons and the computer and Internet access they otherwise do not have.
Quick said some are intimidated by the new technology. "Many are embarrassed that they don't know anything about it,'' she said.
There are public computers available in the Dawson and Madison libraries, but most people aren't going to ask busy librarians to spend hours teaching them how to use computers. And for elderly people in some of the smaller towns, driving to Dawson or Madison is not something they do very often in winter, Quick said.
Bringing the lab to their town makes all the difference, she said.
A grant from the TFD Foundation in Washington, D.C., made it possible to offer the mobile computer laboratory, according to Pam Lehman, director of the Lac qui Parle County Economic Development Agency.
The county also has obtained $9.5 million in federal stimulus funding to bring fiber-optic cable to the roughly one-half of the county now lacking broadband access. When that work is completed in late 2014, Lac qui Parle will be one of the country's first rural counties with broadband service available at virtually every business, farm and home in the county.
The challenge now is to get the people in all of those homes to not only learn how to use computers, but to discover just what they can do for them. Quick said that there remain a lot of people "who don't know what they're missing.''
Those who come to her laboratory and discover what's available can't say enough about the benefits, or their teacher. "She's definitely the right person,'' said Pat Craigmile of rural Dawson as Lein and Eckhardt nodded in agreement. "She's so patient,'' said Lein.