1999 Conference Proceedings

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An Online Community of Hope: NCF's Person-to-Person Network

Sandy Berman, M.S.
Coordinator, NCF Person-to-Person Network
181 Harbor Drive
Stamford, CT 06902
Sberma@cristina.org 

Patricia Keiserman,
Coordinator, NCF Learning Network
181 Harbor Drive
Stamford, CT 06902
Pkeiserman@cristina.org 

Yvette Marrin, Ph.D
President, National Cristina Foundation
181 Harbor Drive
Stamford, CT 06902
Ymarrin@cristina.org

Since 1984 the National Cristina Foundation (NCF) has distributed donated previously used computer equipment -- at no cost -- to thousands of public agencies, charities, schools and hospitals throughout the United States and internationally. NCF, through its grassroots partners, provides people with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged with access to appropriate computer technology and the training to use that technology. This enables individuals with special needs to develop essential skills and enjoy increased opportunities to achieve personal and professional goals. They are able to lead more independent and productive lives, and become active, contributing members of their communities.

The National Cristina Foundation created the NCF Person-to-Person Network to reach out to a population that has not been adequately served -- young people, ages 7 to 25, who are isolated because of disability, serious illness, injury or social conditions. For these youngsters, the challenges they face are both academic and social: medical treatments and hospital stays often interrupt formal school experiences, and there are few, if any, chances for them to interact with others their age. Broadening the constrained world of the isolated youngster is essential.

"Communication is a necessity for learning and life. Regardless of one's intelligence, a lack of fluent, flexible communication cuts one off from the activities that feed learning. Motivation and the sense of one's own control and autonomy is threatened both by reality and prejudice...Communication, access and motivation are central to learning." (Goldenberg, Russell and Carter, 1984, Computers, Education, and Special Needs)

The NCF Person-to-Person Network places donated computers with Internet access in hospitals and schools and, as a unique feature of this program, also in the homes of isolated young people. Youngsters are also provided with training in the use of the technology, e-mail buddies, mentors, and access to the NCF Person-to-Person web site which has links to informative and/or fun sites plus secure chat areas for the young people and their parents. This web site is under development as a portal to a stimulating world that offers emotional support, educational experiences, creative outlets, communication opportunities, social contacts, and career exploration. The youngsters will be actively contributing to its structure and content. On the Net, prejudices generated by appearance, gender, race, class, ability or disability and physical limitations fall away. The child who cannot use his hands uses voice input. The blind youngster uses a screen reader.

The young person isolated in an unsafe neighborhood "travels" around the world. Through the Internet youngsters can embark on an adventure and explore the Amazon rain forest experiencing the sights and sounds of the jungle, while learning about the annual rainfall, biodiversity, and the ecological changes of the region. The Internet provides experiences that are content-rich, state of the art, far-reaching and highly personalized. M

any of the Net's best resources are human beings; old friends, new friends here and in other countries, another youngster who faces the challenges of the same disability, experts of all types. E-mail provides youngsters with the ability to reach out and communicate. Friendships are built and sustained. The interactions provide emotional support and also are opportunities to improve writing skills and broaden vocabularies.

The computer--"the great equalizer"- overcomes barriers puter technology for the young people, training materials for youngsters, their families and project coordinators, contacts with support sources, and the expertise of staff and consultants in areas such as strategic planning. The projects identify young people who fit the program profile, provide training and technical assistance to them and their families, and document their experiences for research and replication purposes.

Once a pilot project is established, the NCF Person-to-Person Network communicates with project coordinators who provide ongoing information about current and new participants. NCF also maintains links with the young people themselves to ensure that there is an understanding of how their needs are being met and to further enhance the evolving communication network.

Replication and dissemination are facilitated by this emphasis on networking, dialoguing, and sharing. NCF, as facilitator/coordinator, hosts on-line meetings and teleconferences to discuss problems, strategies and solutions, and to document, evaluate and disseminate successful practices. These interactions will enable the NCF Person-to-Person Network to measure the educational and social impact of access to the Internet on the lives of isolated youngsters and their families, to identify successful strategies in achieving these aims, and to expedite replication of these approaches in programs across the nation.

The diversity of the populations served puts us in a unique position to assess the impact of the Internet upon educational outcomes, its effect upon social isolation, and the interplay between isolation and educational achievement across age groups, disability status, economic levels, and geographic locations.

The education outcomes to be defined and assessed are reading, problem-solving, and communication. Whenever possible, documentation of the effects of the project upon educational outcomes will use data from existing sources (i.e., standardized tests, IEPs, proprietary surveys, and interviews) with participating programs collecting much of this data. The NCF Person-to-Person staff will use a database designed for the project to organize and analyze the data. Participants will also be surveyed on an ongoing basis via our web site. To determine achievement of the socialization goals, baseline information will be compared with results from the proprietary surveys as well as from anecdotal indicators (e.g., e-mail use, chat room participation).

The National Cristina Foundation Person-to-Person Network provides the technological tools and opportunities that enhance the social, educational and personal well-being of isolated young people by allowing them to link to one another and enable them to communicate with the world at large via the Internet.


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