With Jennifer Griggs, Grants Manager, Randolph County Housing Authority

 

NCC: Can you give us an overview of Randolph County and the work you all are doing.

RCHA: We have about six different counties that we serve in West Virginia. Randolph County is the primary one. We serve Tucker County, Barbour County, Upshur County, and Lewis County as well. In this area, we found the COVID impact of not having access to broadband and digital devices. Last year, Rural LISC, the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, came to us and said “we have this program called the digital navigator program. We think it would be a good fit for you.”

It was something that our organization had never thought about taking on, but in discussing with rural LISC, we learned what this program is about. It’s about trying to help people learn computer basics and helping them find ways to procure computers and Internet subscriptions at low costs.

In this region, we have a lot of very low-income and low income families in the areas that we serve. Primarily Highland Community Builders, the other organization I am involved with, is really focused on very low income families. And so we really took this on and we were, I think, a little bit shocked at how much the service was needed. At least I was, and I live in a town called Elkins, the biggest town in Randolph County.

What is the current state of connectivity and what barriers are you all facing?

For the most part, you can get Internet services through Suddenlink or through Frontier. Those are the two big providers, but if you go a mile away, you may not even have the ability to get those services because there’s not the infrastructure there. If you go down to some of the smaller communities such as Mill Creek, Valley Bend, even Beverly, you’re looking at only being able to get satellite Internet.

We are a “hill” community so there are hills and valleys, and the infrastructure is not there. We didn’t realize that it wasn’t there and how much of an impact that was having on our communities until COVID. We found that everyone from school kids to people of working age couldn’t afford computers. So, from a school perspective, when the schools went completely virtual, we were getting requests and people were going, “we don’t have a computer for our student to do the schoolwork.” Although school districts put in the orders, those orders were backlogged for Chromebooks and everything like that.

What did your young adults experience? How did you all work to keep them connected?

We have a Youth Build Program for opportunity youth between ages 16 to 24. They were attending every Monday through Thursday working on finishing their GED. All of a sudden in the middle of March, they can’t be in this building anymore. Well, how can they continue to get their GED? We had always had the students in the Youth Build Program, so we fundraised and we were able to get computers for that class. Those students would be able to take those computers home and get on the Internet. We also purchased Internet subscriptions for some of them because they didn’t even have Internet. You know, most of them had cell phones but we know you can’t really learn on a cell phone.

How did you all adapt that solution into other communities?

We first saw success with our youth build and then it moved into those who are trying to attend community college. Well, now the community college classes are all virtual and students lack devices. It really snowballed into this big challenge that we were seeing. With Rural LISC funding, we were able to purchase hardware and get computers into the hands of families of people in the workforce, people trying to apply for jobs, and seniors who were disconnected.

We serve a senior population. While they’re staying at home, they miss their family. They don’t know how to use a computer and needed to get online for telemedicine appointments and all of those things. So, we started reaching out to our seniors with computers and Internet.

What has been the most significant thing you have learned from COVID-19?

The biggest thing that we realized is with the Internet access, they might be able to pay the monthly costs because you can get some reduced costs. But they cannot pay the $250 upfront fee. That’s really where our role is as an organization. We’re so thankful we were able to pay for installation fees and a couple months for many of these households. And so they were able to, instead of their students having to go and sit next to the school out in the cold, we were able to get Suddenlink or Frontier or even HughesNet in some places. They were able to connect in the warmth of their house and the kids were able to do their schoolwork.

Are there any initiatives that you all are planning to pursue in 2021?

We’re going to continue to ask questions and see what the needs are with our community. We’re continuing to look at what other provider options are available during the pandemic. We found out there was a new provider. They can do more point-to-point type installation. So we’re trying to figure out if they can serve more areas. We will work with local leaders who are trying to make those greater infrastructure connections within our community and the larger geographic larger area. We will be there supporting and continuing to feed them the information that this is much needed.

We are also opening a learning center for our workforce development program. It will have computers and Internet service, in a socially distant manner. People will be able to come in, if they’re with our programs, and use these resources. This is in our downtown Elkins area which is the largest community. It’s walkable for many people so they can gain some skills from a workforce standpoint, or have the ability to take college classes, or gain any type of skills to help them continue to move forward.

We realize everybody needs to increase their skills, their ability to communicate, and their ability to create and submit a resume. So many employers are doing video interviews now for the first one because they’re trying to be respectful of that social distance. There’s so many things that require digital devices as well as good Internet signals to be able to do life right now.