Last spring, Anya Remy and Josh Pesantez, then ninth-grade students at Montgomery Blair High School, went to the State House in Annapolis to testify for funds to build a computer technology center for the lower-income, ethnically diverse Long Branch neighborhood in Silver Spring.
They didn't mince any words. "I basically told them we don't come from a very rich neighborhood, and kids need computers and a computer center would make a real difference to help kids make it in life," recalled Anya, who is 15. "And then I told them we don't want any cheap computers either, nothing with disk drives from 1994," added Josh, also 15.
Their testimony before two committees helped spur passage of a bill to provide up to $100,000 in matching funds for construction costs for a technology center at the Long Branch Community Center. The Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs is also funding $51,000 in construction costs for the center, which would offer free or low-cost access to computers and computer training.
Now Anya, Josh and a host of others, including senior citizens, members of the nonprofit Silver Spring Team for Children and Families and community center staff, are working to raise additional funds to buy equipment and hire a part-time director for the center.
"This particular area needs a boost," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), one of the sponsors of the bill in the legislature. "The center will not only help young people achieve their goals for the future, it will provide the kind of work force we need in the area."
The Long Branch community encompasses three square miles at the southeastern edge of Silver Spring, where Vietnamese carryouts abut Salvadoran restaurants. Cynthia Rubenstein, who is on the boards of the community center and the Silver Spring Team, calls the 60,000-resident area "a real United Nations." Senior citizens visiting the community center come from 23 different countries, and 79 percent of the students enrolled in the Blair cluster of schools are ethnic minorities.
More than half are eligible for free and reduced-cost meals at school. According to 1994 census statistics, one-third of the households in the Blair cluster have computers. In Montgomery county overall, two-thirds of households have computer access.
"It's a real digital divide. We are a county of haves and a community of have-nots," said Jim Johnson, president of the board of the Silver Spring Team. To help bridge that gap, pool tables in part of the community center's game room will make way this fall for computer monitors, as the room is divided and enlarged to house the technology center. Classes are slated to begin in January.
Programs will include literacy classes, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes for adults and vocational classes for adults to help them develop job and job-seeking skills. The center also will offer classes in basic and advanced computer skills as well as computer training for neighborhood business owners. Computers also will be available for the use of the neighborhood business owners.
The center will be open more than 60 hours a week, and Rubenstein estimates that more than 400 people will use it each week. A similar center, sponsored by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, is slated to open this fall in a low-income area of Fairfax County. That center, however, is geared for children, while the Long Branch center is intended to be multi-generational.
No other community center in Montgomery County has a computer component.
"We really want this to be a center for everyone, young people, seniors, the mom and pop business owners," said Toya Nyang, who runs the community center's summer computer camp. "I can't tell you how many kids and adults come in here every week and want to know when the computer center is opening."
The camp, which used borrowed equipment, has helped teenagers gain computer skills the last two summers. They learned how to use spreadsheet and graphics programs and the Internet and took apart the computers so they could understand the components inside.
Senior citizens are also clamoring for their turn to learn how to use a mouse. "Everything is now 'dot com,' " said Levora Jacobs President, assistant director for the senior program, which meets at the center daily. "We get 30 seniors coming in here every day, and they all want to know more about the computer."
One advocate of the center is Rose Crenca, who has lived in the Long Branch area for more than 40 years and served on the Montgomery County Council from 1978 to 1990. When her husband was diagnosed with a rare degenerative muscle disease, she turned to the Internet.
"Let me tell you, I have newfound respect for the computer," said Crenca, who still uses a typewriter for correspondence. "I now know more than the doctors I was taking my husband to and found a doctor at Johns Hopkins who has experience with this illness. It's vital for other seniors to have access to this kind of information gathering as well."
Supporters of the center envision even more uses. Maryland's welfare-to-work program provides only five sessions of computer training. According to Rubenstein, that "offers just a taste of computer technology. We're not looking at a Band-Aid here. Our center could supplement that training and provide a place for them to practice their new skills."
In addition, Rubenstein hopes small businesses in the area will take advantage of the center to do everything from designing menus to developing accounting spreadsheets.
So far, Hewlett-Packard has donated two computers and two color printers. In addition, an employee of Microsoft has offered to donate software. However, center supporters hope to raise additional funds to buy seven more computers.
"In this community, there's a real hunger for this," said Johnson, of the Silver Spring Team. "It will be a catalyst for a whole lot of optimism in the community."
For more information, contact the Silver Spring Team for Children and Families at 8716 Plymouth St., #2, Silver Spring, Md. 20901, 301-585-2138.
CAPTION: Long Branch neighbors including Cynthia Rubenstein, far left, Rose Crenca and Jim Johnson, back left, along with Vincent Moy, center, and Gabriel Mendoza, far right, talk about plans for a technology center in their community. When completed, the center will offer residents low-cost access to computers and computer training.
CAPTION: Community leader Cynthia Rubenstein, left, talks with Joshua Pesantez and Anya Remy about plans for a technology center at the Long Branch Community Center. The youths testified at the state legislature for funding.