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Company's project helping to bridge the digital divide

After today's blackboard lesson teaching words that rhyme, the young children at The Door community center in East Baltimore will spend a few moments each playing educational games on computers.

"They do stuff that is fun but they don't realize they are actually learning because they are having so much fun," said Jim Woods, a minister who is chief operating officer of the faith-based program. "It's good for us because we have successfully tied learning to technology."

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That's exactly what the folks at Hewlett-Packard Co., the California-based computer maker that provided The Door with 15 computers, want to hear.

Since 2001, when Hewlett-Packard began a three-year, $5 million partnership with the East Baltimore empowerment zone to launch the Baltimore Digital Village, more than 350 workstations with desktop computers, monitors, and printers have been given to lower-income residents and small start-up businesses in the area.

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"We had homes here that had never had a computer in them before this partnership began," said Marie J. Washington, president of the East Baltimore Community Corp., an umbrella organization of 26 community groups.

For Hewlett-Packard, establishing the digital village is part business and part community outreach. The intent of the program, part of the company's "e-inclusion" initiative, is to make technology increasingly accessible to people in underserved communities -- also increasing the potential number of consumers.

Executives from the company were in Baltimore yesterday checking in on their investment. More important, they were checking to ensure the technology drive started by the company can continue now that its windfall of funding to the community is about to stop.

The Hewlett-Packard executives boarded a bus with community leaders yesterday morning and toured four sites where their computers are being used to teach children schoolwork and adults business skills. The group later met for a luncheon at the Hippodrome Theatre.

"I'm encouraged by what I saw," said Debra Dunn, Hewlett-Packard's senior vice president of corporate affairs and global citizenship.

Dunn said the company is analyzing how effective the program has been in the community and whether its involvement has boosted Hewlett-Packard's image as a business.

"What we have learned is that technology moves at such a fast pace that some entire communities are left behind," said Bess Stephens, Hewlett-Packard's vice president of corporate philanthropy and education. "We're bridging the gap between technology and those communities that don't have it," she said.

Hewlett-Packard selected East Baltimore and two California areas for the program from 210 grant applications. Its other digital village projects are East Palo Alto, Calif., and a "tribal village" consisting of 18 Native American reservations in San Diego and southern Riverside counties.

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The East Baltimore empowerment zone stretches from just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard over to Patterson Park, north to North Avenue and south to the Inner Harbor. Of the approximately 39,000 residents in the area, Hewlett-Packard estimates that it has reached about 10 percent, either through the five public schools that have been outfitted with equipment or the dozen hubs where people can freely use computers with Internet access.

But while Hewlett-Packard expects to continue to be a friend and consultant to the East Baltimore project, it does not plan to continue funding the programs, true to the original three-year plan. The programs that have benefited from Hewlett-Packard are now expected to use the knowledge gained from the partnership to secure private support.

"What we have tried to get them to see is that there is a fair amount of funding available, but you get that funding by being able to convince donors and corporations that you'll do something successful with the money when you get it," Dunn said.

Woods said The Door has started working on securing funding and has established a relationship with nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Washington said it "will be a challenge" to make sure that all the programs sustain themselves.

"But this is a dream come true," she said. "Because as we rebuild our community, this technology effort is opening up a whole new set of opportunities for us that many of us didn't know was available to us."


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