By Jeff Fetzer
As Tri-Co Connection’s marketing mastermind, Bill Gerski, drove toward Coudersport for a presentation to introduce the public to Tri-County’s historic broadband internet initiative last winter, he had the senior moment he had been hoping for.
Pondering ways to encourage older residents to embrace the benefits of high-speed internet as he rolled along Route 6, Gerski conceptualized a program in which tech-savvy high school seniors would teach senior citizens basic computer and internet skills. The idea for what would become known as the Seniors 2 Seniors program was born.
Tri-County had hired Gerski, a veteran of the telecommunications and broadband industry, as the senior vice president of business development for Tri-Co Connections in the fall of 2018, shortly after the co-op announced its ambitious plan to bring high-speed internet to every corner of its 5,000-square-mile service territory over a five- to six-year period.
Tasked with leading the marketing and sales development efforts for Tri-Co Connections, the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, Gerski traveled throughout Potter County last year making public presentations about the project and the many benefits it would bring to the region. It was while leading those town hall presentations that he developed a concern that some of the region’s older residents would be bypassed by the information superhighway if there were no additional outreach efforts directed toward them.
“Over 40% of the members at Tri-County Rural Electric are senior citizens,” Gerski said. “Many of them lack computer skills or are unaware of all of the ways the internet can enhance their lives. I wanted to help seniors gain knowledge of computers without intimidating them.”
To move his concept from idea stage to reality, Gerski reached out to Dr. Michele Moore, executive director of the Potter County Education Council for her input and implementation ideas. Moore had attended some of Gerski’s community presentations in Potter County, where broadband deployment began last month, and shared his concern that the area’s older population wouldn’t take full advantage of the myriad benefits high-speed internet offers.
“Many of the attendees at these community meetings were senior citizens,” Moore said. “When Bill would ask them who was using the internet and what were they using it for, a lot of them said they either didn’t have a computer, or, if they did, all they were using it for was to play solitaire.”
After brainstorming with Gerski and researching digital outreach efforts aimed at senior citizens, Moore developed a technology course designed to introduce seniors to the benefits of high-speed internet through teacher-led instruction, hands-on practice and one-on-one support in a classroom setting.
“It’s a hands-on program led by an instructor who has vast experience in the field of information technology,” Moore explained. “Additionally, the seniors are being supported in the classroom by senior high school students who have an interest in and experience with computers and technology.”
Moore enlisted the assistance of them Potter County Human Services Area Agency on Aging, the Seneca Highlands Career and Technical Center (CTC), and school districts within Potter County to help develop the program and support the computer and internet educational curriculum for senior citizens. Gerski and Moore dubbed the new program Seniors 2 Seniors.
“Our goal is to show seniors how to use computers so they can stay connected with family and friends, utilize telemedicine or health care from home, access government online tools, utilize online banking, and work and shop from home,” Gerski said.
The Seniors 2 Seniors technology courses are hosted by the four senior centers in Potter County on an eight-week rotating schedule.
Led by Brent Bryant, network systems technology instructor with the Seneca Highlands CTC, the hour-long class takes place once a week. Bryant typically brings two to three high school students from the CTC’s network systems technology program to assist each week, and the local school district also supplies as many as five high school students to work with the senior citizens as they learn computer and internet basics.
The senior citizens receive individualized, on-site support from the students, who walk about the instruction area offering assistance as needed. “I think it’s an amazing program,” said Bryant, a Tri-County member who resides in Genesee. “It gives our students an opportunity to get out and share their knowledge, and it gives the seniors some essential skills to deal with today’s technology.”
He noted teaching senior citizens who have limited or no experience with technology is much more challenging than teaching high school students who have grown up with computers. “For many of them, just getting used to the icons, getting used to pointing and clicking and manipulating the devices is probably the biggest hurdle,” Bryant said.
Over the eight-week course, Bryant provides instruction on basic computing skills, conducting internet searches with Google, setting up an email account and sending email, saving and storing documents and files, using social networking such as Skype and Facetime, and handling and sharing photos. There are also components dealing with online banking and cybersecurity.
Some of the attendees bring their own devices to the class, but the Education Council also provides laptops for use during the class meetings. The laptops were purchased through donations from C&N Bank, First Citizens Community Bank, JVB Bank and Northwest Bank. The first Seniors 2 Seniors course took place at the Shinglehouse Senior Center in October, and subsequent courses have been held at the Coudersport and Ulysses senior centers. The course is currently being offered at the Galeton Senior Center through May 27. For information about the Seniors 2 Seniors program, contact the Potter County Education Council at 814-274-4877.
Moore said the courses have been well received by seniors and she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the number of seniors enrolling in the course and their enthusiasm about learning about the internet.
“A lot of times, our senior citizens hear all this negative stuff about the internet, but they don’t hear enough about the positive benefits,” she said. “Once we are able to lessen those fears, to see their eyes light up, their smiles when they learn something new — it’s so great to see that.”
A career educator and advocate of lifelong learning, Moore noted that the Shinglehouse course had an 86-year old in attendance, and in Coudersport, one of the attendees was a “wonderful 96-year-old lady who came in and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to get left behind.’” Moore said the high school students who help with the program are also getting a valuable learning experience through the program.
“Sometimes the various generations have preconceived notions or assumptions that they make about the other generations,” she said. “These kinds of programs that bring those generations together is nothing but a benefit. It starts to break down those preconceived notions, and they get a better understanding of each other.” She said the Education Council will continue to offer the courses in Potter County as long as there is sufficient interest, and there may even be a Seniors 2 Seniors 2.0 in the offering in the future.
“Having never done something like this before, we are learning as we go,” she said. “We will keep refining it. We’re just really trying to listen to what the needs are and trying to address those needs.”
Gerski anticipates the program will expand to other counties where Tri-Co Connections will serve broadband customers, and noted discussions to that end are already underway with Tioga County officials.
“The feedback about Seniors 2 Seniors has been very positive,” Gerski said “It’s been very well received.” Tri-County member Donald “Buck” Jackson of Coudersport participated in the course offered at the Coudersport Senior Center and said the training he received helped make him more comfortable using a computer and navigating the internet.
“I’m pretty ignorant about the computer,” Jackson said. “I have gotten to the place where I could do emails and look things up occasionally and check the national news, but there is so much that I don’t know. Anything I get out of it is a plus. Even if it just makes me more comfortable with what I’m doing, it would be a plus.”
Jackson says he would highly recommend the Seniors 2 Seniors program to others, especially those who have very limited or no experience with computers. “If someone knows nothing about the computer, it’s almost scary because it’s so alien to what we’ve done before,” said Jackson.
Gerski, who is usually on hand to provide assistance to seniors participating in the training program, relates that at one of the sessions that focused on setting up an email account and sending email messages, he handed out his business card to the senior students and asked them to send him a message.
“The first one who sent me an email said, ‘Thank you very much for teaching us how to use a computer. We really appreciate your support,’” Gerski said. “I thought that was so cool. The fellow who sent it is 78 years old, and it was the first email he’d ever sent.” For Gerski, that’s a senior moment he won’t soon forget.