Rita Birke

Rita Birke

Rita Birke

The peer coaches in our Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) are all SCSEP participants who offer a rich variety of occupational backgrounds and experiences.

It could be her training as a substance abuse counselor that makes Rita Birke, 68—a peer coach in our DII project with Community Action Agency of Siouxland, our partner in Sioux City, Iowa—particularly patient when working with new learners who are absolutely beginners at the computer.

Or it could be what she endured two years ago when her husband passed away.

In 2009, Rita was a SCSEP participant—contributing to the community as a receptionist at the Alzheimer’s Association branch in Sioux City—when the DII program began. When one of our partner’s DII coordinators asked Rita to consider becoming a peer coach, she was very hesitant at first.

I didn’t know a lot about computers, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to coach, Rita recalls. I was told that I didn’t have to know computers, that what was important was having patience.

Those words turned out to be true. Patience is the main thing, she says. And you need to be able to talk to people.

Some new learners are scared of the mouse or breaking the computer. I always tell them I relate, Rita says. “When my son first gave me one of his old computers, I was scared to death—I was afraid that I was going to break it, make it not work.

“When I tell them I really understand because this is how I felt when I first started, they’re relieved that they’re not the only ones with great difficulty at the beginning. And then it’s easier for them to learn.”

Many new learners have a lot of trouble learning how to control the computer mouse, according to Rita. My concern is that they’ll get frustrated and give up if they can’t control the mouse.

So great patience, it seems, is required all around when taking that first step across the digital divide.

Rita recalls a fellow peer coach who was assisting an 85-year-old man—for a long time, he insisted on holding the mouse as if it were a television remote control. I guess he ended up doing pretty well, Rita recalls.

Rather than showing new learners how to use the mouse, she guides them to the on-screen tutorials, which the learners can always repeat. I’ve never had anyone who didn’t greatly improve, she says.

Being a good coach means understanding that each new learner is different. For instance, it’s actually a good thing that some new learners can’t control the mouse at first, Rita says. Then they can’t start clicking on everything that they see, without first paying attention to what they are doing.

Rita has learned to tell new learners the importance of looking at the computer screen, and that they must read what it says in order to accomplish what they want to.

Many are not used to reading copy on a screen and will just start clicking around, Rita says. I have to slow them down and get them to pay attention to what they’re doing—pay attention to what’s on the screen—because the text there gives them specific instructions. A lot of how learners approach the tutorial depends on their personality.

Becoming a SCSEP participant and now a DII peer coach has helped Rita around difficult turns in her life. Two years ago, finances were already strained when her husband passed away, leaving $150,000 in bills that a recently-acquired private health insurance policy would not pay for.

I am going to have to file for bankruptcy, Rita says. There’s no way I could ever pay those bills. I should have fought the insurer, but I didn’t because my husband had passed away, I had a lot of things to do, and I was depressed.

After her husband’s death, Rita looked for work without success until she became a SCSEP participant. Like the new DII learners she coaches, she possesses the perseverance and patience that growing older requires.