THE STUDENTS, a mix of single moms, men without jobs and
low-paid workers intent on better careers, sit in an arranged circle of
gleaming computer monitors in the bleak lobby of the Southampton Bay Inn, a
converted homeless shelter. Long, makeshift blinds block out the afternoon sun
and activity in the courtyard, where men in doorways stand watching rush-hour
traffic streak past on Montauk Highway.
Inside, Sandra Allen, herself once jobless and lacking computer skills,
moves from work station to work station, stopping to offer a tip on typing or
word processing. The students could ask for no better mentor than Allen, calm
and confident; her progress stands as an example of what many here hope to
attain. Each day she travels from her Coram home to teach the afternoon shift
of Computers 101 to people determined to better their lot through computer
knowledge. In 12 weeks, they'll know enough to list word processing,
spreadsheets and Internet use on their resumes, which they'll typeset and print
themselves. They'll also have earned a computer they can bring into their
homes, with free Internet service for 12 weeks. Many here say they hope to
start their own businesses.
With embarrassingly little help from government and the local business
community, Ken Komoski and his nonprofit group, which runs this and 14 other
classes like it on Long Island, have grown this "learn and earn" computer
program from modest roots in Hampton Bays to one with national reach. More than
1,500 people have graduated from the program locally.
While the Learning and Information Network for Communities via Technology
coalition continues to operate on a shoestring budget held together largely
through the efforts of volunteers, the 7-year-old program has won some recent
assurances of more local government assistancethan the roughly $50,000 it gets
from Suffolk County each year.
"What we've been paying this group is not fair," said Legis. Fred Towle
(R-Shirley). "We're trying to rectify that." Towle recently had LINCT submit a
proposed budget for all its services that assumed all the work was done by paid
staffers, not volunteers. It came to nearly $500,000 a year.
Komoski said he's been operating on just more than $50,000 a year. Towle
said he plans to use the budget to argue in the legislature that LINCT needs
more money with less red tape, a project with an uncertain future in the
cash-strapped county budget. "People don't realize how much this group is
doing," he said.
Komoski, a retired Columbia University professor who doesn't take a salary,
has seen to it that some 250 underprivileged Suffolk residents a year go
through the program, but there's a waiting list of 400, and he doesn't
advertise. Computer donations have outpaced the ability to place them, causing
the group's donated warehouse in Riverhead to fill beyond its means.
For a region whose tech firms have long complained of a lack of skilled
workers to take even entry-level data-processing or help-desk jobs, the lack of
support remains baffling to Komoski.
"If businesses would come in and sit down with us, we could work in very
complementary ways," he said, noting companies as large as the former Long
Island Lighting Co. have made one-time PC donations, never to be heard from
again. "They could come to classes and talk to people to teach them what they
need to know to get jobs. They could do mock interviews. There are all kinds of
ways we can use volunteers. We need to get these people ready for jobs."
Peter Goldsmith, president of the Long Island Software and Technology
Network, a local business association, said regional tech companies remain as
willing as ever to help Komoski and LINCT - but they haven't heard from the
group in years. He said LINCT has taken a lower profile since Goldsmith helped
organize a joint event with LINCT and Long Island Software and Technology
Network companies a few years ago to build awareness of the program.
"I haven't heard from [Komoski] since then," Goldsmith said. "I didn't
realize they were still around. If he's still doing all the good work he was
doing three years ago, I'm sure most people would like to know how to donate
and help them."
Komoski said there are limits to his energy.
"I'm only one guy," he said. "I don't have anyone here to do follow-ups
with companies. Like my father used to say, 'You can't keep pushing the
One firm that hasn't required much pushing is HamptonsOnline, a
Southampton-based Internet service provider. Robert Florio, its president, has
been providing free Internet accounts for LINCT students while they are
undergoing training, and four months of free service once they've graduated,
for the past two years.
"We had extra capacity," he said. "I understand what Ken is trying to
accomplish and support him going out to teach people to use computers."
HamptonsOnline supports more than 100 Internet accounts, including free
e-mail and tech support, and hosts the group's eLearningSpace.
"As we've gotten more technology we've said, 'Come on,'" Florio said. "What
they're asking us to do doesn't require a large outlay of cash."
Towle said that as the economy worsens, programs like LINCT (and there are
few) will be relied upon more to give a broader pool of lower-income workers a
chance to move up.
On a sunny Monday morning in the Love'm Thrift store in Riverhead, Karen
Wollney, a resident of the nearby Love'm shelter, is here, with her son Alex in
a stroller. The single mother of four aims to put her computer skills to work
in a job that will stir her children to aim high despite their current
Shanita Robinson, a certified nurse's aide, hopes to put her skills to work
in an administrative position in her field. Her current job on the 3-to-11
p.m. shift is physically strenuous, she said, complicated by the difficulty of
raising a young son.
Karen Finne, the instructor and a program graduate, said three of four
graduates of the program land themselves better situations or jobs after
acquiring the skills, though it's difficult to say for certain what the success
rate is, since LINCT doesn't track graduates. But Finne herself can attest to
the program's success. In addition to earning $17 an hour teaching the class,
she's moved on from working as a nurse's aide at a nursing home to a better
position working with the mentally handicapped.
That's an incentive for Donna, a homeless mother of four grown men who has
lived the past summer in a campground and is looking for a job change (she
asked that her last name not be used). She drives a cab each night until 2 a.m.
and grabs a few hours of sleep before waking to attend the 9 a.m. class with
one of her sons here each day.
"I have big expectations for this," she said.
Dan Martin, a technology consultant who started with LINCT as a trainer in
1996 and worked his way up to program coordinator over four years, understands
first-hand the sweat that has kept the program going.
He's driven Ryder trucks all over New York, and even deep into the bowels
of the United Nations building to fetch thousands of donated computers. He's
trained numerous computer repair technicians for LINCT and has seen them find
jobs while making rounds to pick up computers.
"Every time I took a prot�g� under my wing, every three months they'd get a
job, frequently making more than I was," said Martin, who runs a
technology-based educational consulting company called Access 4 Technology, in
Riverhead. "It was wonderful."
Komoski, through an affiliated group, Educational Products Information
Exchange, also has spent considerable time and energy developing a Web site
that would serve as a complement to the computer training and home-computer
aspects of the programs. Called eLearningSpace, the pilot Internet site
combines vast learning resources with links to related sites and provides
online tutors, learning incentives, lesson plans and teachers to help
disadvantaged kids and their parents put their computer skills to use. It's
expected to go live next year.
In addition to its work on Long Island, LINCT has brought learn-and-earn
programs to low-income areas as far away as Los Angeles. Martin said programs
it has mentored in Chicago, Phoenix, Denver and Philadelphia have seen more
than 10,000 computers placed in the homes of the disadvantaged.
One such benefactor is Iris Blackwell, a single mother of a 10-year-old
girl who had been content to spend her days on public assistance in front of
In 1997, after Komoski's group imported the program to the Blackwells'
Phoenix housing project, she took the training, earned a computer and hasn't
looked back. "It has changed my life," she said.
Komoski, 73, does not appear to have let such testaments go to his head.
The former Columbia professor with an emphasis in education created in 1962
what he called the first institute for educational technology in the world, and
he went on to found the EPIE Institute, which advises schools on software
purchases. A jazz buff who is paradoxically low tech, he drives a battered 1994
Honda Civic everywhere, from meetings with educators to graduation ceremonies,
which take place every few weeks. At each one, he congratulates graduates for
having grown their brains - a statement he means to be taken figuratively and
literally. He goes on to explain that those who seek to continually learn more
improve their mental capacity in a way that also physically grows their brain.
Those who know Komoski say it's hard to imagine him doing anything but
cultivating such growth.
"He wants to help other people," Martin said. "If, in doing that, he leaves
his mark, that's OK too."The organization can be reached via its web site,