Willie Ford

Willie Ford

Willie Ford

Job training is a tricky thing. The decision to spend time and money updating your skills can seem rock-solid. But then you may find—because of factors including age discrimination, gender, race and a plain awful job market—that finding work you trained for seems out of reach.

That’s what happened to Willie Ford. Now 63, Willie is a flourishing Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) peer coach and SCSEP participant with Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors, our subgrantee partner in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Only since Willie came to SCSEP have her computer skills been able to bloom—benefiting both her and others whose lives are being changed by their DII experiences.

I have finally had the chance to use my computer skills, which I had wanted for quite some time, and didn’t have the opportunity, says Willie.

A self-supporting mother of two, Willie did factory work for decades. But as she turned 50, she realized that back injuries and other accumulated ailments would eventually put a stop to her factory days. So, with an eye on office work, Willie took Chattanooga State computer courses leading to a word processing certificate.

But that lovely certificate wasn’t a big help, Willie says today with a soft chuckle. I tried for years and years and I couldn’t get interviews for full-time office jobs. Instead, she took one temporary gig after another—factory work, again, a cable company telemarketer stint—never giving up but never able to find a stable office job.

Those were hard years to survive, Willie says. Owning a home that she’d built on a lot purchased in the mid-1980s helped her through them.

Things got better when Willie turned 62 and could begin drawing Social Security benefits. Then, after hearing about SCSEP on TV and from her sister, she reached out to the Alexian Brothers. And as a new SCSEP participant, Willie’s first host agency assignment was to be an aide at the county Eastgate Library in Chattanooga.


With this library assignment, Willie became a de facto computer peer coach.

Because she already had good computer skills, Willie could guide patrons, including older adults, who wanted to use the library’s computers to do things ranging from searching the Web for information to emailing and hunting for work. She even taught some how to use their own so-called jump drive to take home information they’d gleaned online.

Everyone at the library was very grateful and said I was good, which made me feel good, Willie recalls. I was thrilled. Not only had I gotten the opportunity to put my computer skills to work for the first time, I had improved them on the job with my experience coaching others.

While Willie opened new worlds for others, she changed too. I went from being someone who didn’t have much self-confidence to being stronger. All those years of temp work had been depressing. My mental health improved.

After Willie’s library assignment was up, she didn’t hesitate when Alexian Brothers DII Coach Coordinator Omaira Gould asked if she’d like to become a peer coach as this one of our first four DII projects began expanding in summer 2010. DII peer coaching sounded very interesting, and I’m glad I accepted, recalls Willie, who coaches in Alexian Brothers’ Chattanooga offices.

Today, as Willie helps guide other older adults in their first steps across the digital divide, she observes the different ways that they put their new skills to use.

One or two are always desperately in need of computer skills for work, she says.

The rest, she says, are mostly concerned with learning how to send and receive email. After that, when they come to sessions, the first thing they do is check for emails from children or grandchildren, who often prefer emailing to phone, according to Willie. For these learners, she explains, email improves family life and communication.

Taking online communication to the next level, some learners take a shine to Facebook, where people of all ages collect online friends and describe their own lives. One learner recently pointed out the Facebook page of her niece who is getting married. They love Facebook, Willie says.

Other DII learners put their new skills in the service of navigating the often baffling world of health care. After searching online, one learner was greatly relieved to learn that she didn’t have a disease that she feared she might after watching a television advertisement about it, recalls Willie: I was helping to ease her mind, and it made me feel good too because I had seen the same advertisement.

And sometimes Willie saves other older adults precious dollars by assisting them in learning how to search the Web for best prices for health care products such as vitamins.

Having added peer coaching to her skill set, Willie is ready to enlarge it again. This time she’s planning on learning computer programs that create spreadsheets and online presentations, skills that most good office jobs now require.
I can do it all, she says.