Juanita Watkins

Juanita Watkins

Juanita Watkins

Anyone who wants to be a new computer learner—manipulate a computer mouse for the first time, figure out searching online—is welcome in the Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) program. The reasons that bring you to the program, and what you do with the computer skills you acquire in it, are your concern. Many learners will use their new skills only in the pursuit of pleasure such as playing games or emailing family. And that’s wonderful.

But, depending on the community and particular locale, some sites have many new learners who come to DII specifically because they are job hunting. Looking for work is very difficult without basic computer skills—jobs are increasing listed online only and they must be applied for online. Plus, many of the jobs themselves require computer skills.

Older adults who are new computer learners as well as job hunters can be under great stress as they struggle to acquire basic computer skills. For them, it’s particularly helpful to have a peer coach like Juanita Watkins, with the DII project operated by our Baltimore subgrantee, Family & Children’s Services of Central Maryland. Juanita brings to DII coaching the approaches she successfully used as a health care worker managing stressful situations.

I’m a people person, says Juanita, who from the age of 18 made health care her field; her activities included running doctors’ offices and, by going to night school, becoming a specialized clinical technician performing skilled work such as administering electrocardiograms and drawing blood.

After Juanita had a heart attack in 1993, followed by a bout of paralysis in 1994, she began slowing down and retired in 2000. She soon found herself working at home—caring for her husband, a truck driver, who’d become ill with cancer. Some five years after that, still caring for her husband but needing to get out of the house and bring in income, Juanita joined the SCSEP program in Baltimore and was assigned to assist Family & Children’s Services executive director Kathryn Damico.

Because Juanita’s grandkids had shown her the basics, she was no computer newbie and her computer skills improved while performing that assignment. When she left Family & Children’s Services to nurse her husband full-time and then wished to resume her community service after his death, it made sense for Juanita to return as a peer coach.

It was impossible for Juanita to anticipate what would happen in DII.

I’ve seen people change in front of me, she says. A lot come to me knowing nothing. They’re afraid to use the mouse and break the computer. But when they overcome their fear and send that first email, they get very excited and want to learn more.

DII new learners who are job hunting may face great stress. Some must start at the beginning, learning to use the computer mouse. Outside DII sessions, they may have to line up to use publicly-accessible computers in libraries or employment centers. Without computer skills, it’s just about impossible to look for work, Juanita says. I understand the panic they’re feeling.

Juanita uses an approach that she believes creates a positive mental attitude, which is needed to reduce stress and allow learning to happen. I am humble and I look people in the eye and I tell them they can do it, she says. They look back at me and ask me can they really and I say, yes, you can.

In Juanita’s own life, knowing her way around computers has been a big help. A lot of times when I need to find something really fast, it’s much easier to do it online instead of making a phone call, she explains. Like with Medicare and Social Security—you can go online and find out a lot of important things, while on the phone it’s so frustrating when you have to go through so many channels to get the information you need.

Juanita doesn’t have to advertise the use of computers to track personal medical and financial benefits. Once new learners have figured out online searches, that’s often the first thing they do, she says: That’s because they’ve all experienced the same frustration on the phone.