Internet provider provides for city


WHEN ANNAPOLIS was too cheap to pay for its alcohol-free New Year's Eve celebration, USinternetworking kicked in $18,000 to make the party happen.

When county schools needed books and volunteer readers for the national Reading Across America program, USi came through.

And when the Annapolis Housing Authority needed computers and mentors for low-income residents on the wrong side of the digital divide, well, you get the picture.

USi is only two years old but already has become a stellar role model for corporate citizenship.

Figuring out the precise nature of the company's business is a little tricky. Here's a fact sheet description: "USi offers Internet Managed Application Provider solutions that deliver an integrated end-to-end solution representing a paradigm shift in packaged applications outsourcing to mid-sized enterprise clients for a flat monthly fee."

OK. Suffice to say it has something to do with the Web. And it has a broad range of customers from Hershey Foods Corp. to The Baltimore Sun.

But its work in Annapolis is not confusing at all. The firm has a clear presence in communities that don't get much attention from the business world.

In just a year, USi has made a high-speed connection with Annapolis' public housing residents, providing a bridge across the digital divide that grows stronger every month. The company has donated computers and time to residents.

Credit goes to Christopher R. McCleary, chairman and chief executive officer of the publicly owned Annapolis company, which has rapidly grown to more than 600 employees in two years. He answered the call of public service.

And credit also goes to P. Holden Croslan, executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority. She asked him to serve.

Their meeting was memorable to Ms. Croslan. She met Mr. McCleary when her staff was setting up a computer laboratory for children and adults in the Bloombury Square public housing complex. She was all enthusiasm; he was all ears.

"I wanted to expand our lab so we would be able to serve more youth and create an adult program," she recalled last week of a meeting that occurred about a year ago. "Funding sources from HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] come slowly, and when they do come, we often use them for other needs. I was looking for grant sources to fund at least one more computer lab."

She said her grant writer called Mr. McCleary, and he came to Bloombury Square.

Ms. Croslan remembers that the Internet company president asked a lot of questions. He was interested in the housing authority, its past and its future. And then he asked a question that was broad enough to sail an ocean liner through.

"He asked me what I wanted," she recalled.

Her response was immediate.

"I told him I didn't want money. I needed a partner," Ms. Croslan says. "I told him about my vision in closing this digital divide. I told him I wanted at least one more computer lab. I told him I wanted to provide residents with Internet connections -- with speed, top of the line. I told him I wanted new, I wanted fast, I wanted the latest. And I told him I wanted mentors. I wanted children here to see people doing things that were different than what they were used to seeing."

She didn't worry about scaring him away with so much wanting. And she asked unabashedly and enthusiastically, although no private company had done nearly so much for public housing residents since she's been executive director.

He didn't run away.

"He said yes, right there on the spot," Ms. Croslan said.

In addition to the computer labs, USi donates a computer, monitor, printer, desk and second telephone line to five public housing families each month. And 15 employees have become mentors to the children.

"They've adopted us," Ms. Croslan said.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said Mr. McCleary has been a leader in serving the community. "He's made it personal and local," she said.

Kimberly Elek, USi's director of corporate relations, said the company has made a long-term commitment to Annapolis, which includes launching six initiates each year. The business has collected luggage for foster care children who, unfortunately, need to pack their bags too often. And it has organized a school supply drive. Ms. Elek said the public housing initiative is here to stay.

"This is not a PR stunt," she said. "We're not going to do something for a year and leave. We're looking at this for the long term, something that will have a lasting impact on the kids."

Hat's off.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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