Westbury High School student Harry Parham teaches computer skills to...

Westbury High School student Harry Parham teaches computer skills to Lois Rhynie of Westbury in the school library. The two are part of a program that pairs the elderly with computer-literate teens. (March 22, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

When it came to new technology, Lois Rhynie wanted to be as current as possible with her laptop computer. But with no real experience using it, the laptop became little more than a big paperweight.

"I sort of turned it on and played with it, but I never really got into how does a computer work, and what can I do on it, and what advantage is it for me to get on a computer," the 81-year-old Westbury resident said.

That started changing in February when she was introduced to Harry Parham, a Westbury High School sophomore. Once a week he sat with her in the school's library, teaching her computer basics -- from powering up to surfing the Web -- until the keyboard, icons on the computer screen and technical terms she'd never heard before began to make sense.

Six weeks later, the plucky octogenarian was sending and receiving emails, downloading photos of her great-grandson and surfing the Net. "I did a Google search!" Rhynie said at one session, beaming at finding an entry about her jazz musician son. "There's so much on the Internet," she remarked. "It's just incredible."

Rhynie and Parham were part of a pilot tutoring program that matched members of the Westbury Senior Center who were eager for computer training with Westbury High School student volunteers. While libraries offer basic computer classes, the new program gave the seniors one-on-one private sessions so the tutors could target the areas of most interest to each senior and strengthen their weakest points -- like having a personal trainer at a gym.

Diane Van Nooten, a member of the senior center and a volunteer technology instructor, came up with the idea after teaching a digital photography class there. She tried following up with a basic computer class but discovered two stumbling blocks. Some had brand new computers while others had relics and, she said, "There were some who had no exposure to the technology but also others who could teach the class."

Van Nooten, 64, said she was seeing more folks her age at the center playing cards and knitting than toting laptops, and a change could be good. "The computer, for me, is a tool of empowerment," she explained. "We need to be up with the technology. We've been bringing the bar down for so long, especially for the elderly, and people are so capable."

After getting the green light for the program from Maureen Droge, the center's executive director, and Westbury High Principal Manuel Arias, Van Nooten set up the first class. Renate Johnson, a business and computer teacher there, recruited volunteer tutors from the school's Future Business Leaders of America and Interact clubs.

Each Tuesday, the seniors and tutors met for 90 minutes in the school library. They worked from a syllabus, which covered an overview of the laptop, desktop, operating system, navigating the start menu, Internet and security issues, emailing and computer maintenance. Homework assignments ranged from "review skills covered in class" to "play Solitaire at least once daily."

At "64-plus," Barbara Weber came to the tutoring sessions to supplement what she'd already learned from books and computer-based tutorials. "I'm more or less self-taught, but I really wanted to understand what I didn't know so I can communicate more effectively," she said. "As a senior I don't want anything to get past me."

Retired teacher Stanley Colas, 75, had been using his laptop mostly as a word processor for creative writing and was excited to discover so many other applications. "You can download music and even videos on your computer," he said. "You can get your pick of the news and also use it instead of watching TV and wasting time looking at the commercials."

Mavis Atabey, 71, wanted to learn to do her banking and play Solitaire online -- and absorb enough from Parham, her tutor, to help relatives still timid around computers. "I've been showing them whatever I learn," she said.

With one son living overseas and another in Maryland, learning to use email and Skype were the two main goals for Marcella Veal, who is in her 70s. Veal said she entered the tutoring program knowing very little about computers, but she wasted no time putting each lesson into practice. "If I want to talk to my son, I can email him, and five minutes later, he emails me back," she said. "I really like the computer. Getting individual attention is really good, too. The tutors like teaching you. I think they like that idea of being able to tell you something for a change. They want to see you learn. They get something out of it, and I get double!"

Tutor Hermina Paul, 17, said interacting with the seniors makes her feel more a part of the larger community outside of school. "They're very eager to learn. I'm learning from them, too, because they're very experienced in life," she said. "I had a lot of fun doing this. It's a great feeling, and you get to know a lot of great people."

Parham, 16, enjoyed sharing his computer know-how. "I've worked with Miss Mavis [Atabey] and Miss Lois [Rhynie]," he said. "I like interacting with them. I really like this program."

The computer lessons were great, but Linda Papaleo, 64, a retired school secretary, said she also enjoyed her conversations with the teenagers. "When you're sitting together, you're talking about other things, maybe current events, because you're trying to find something on the Web. Then all of a sudden, the student is giving you their perspective on a current event. It's really a great opportunity to share with young people. For a lot of us, we don't have kids at home. If you actually take the time to listen to them, it opens your world up. It's wonderful to hear what young people are thinking."

The program concluded with a ceremony at the senior center, where the tutors presented their pupils with certificates. For their volunteer work, the high school students earned community service credit. The project was such a success, there are plans to resume tutoring classes in the fall. Meanwhile, the first class has returned to the center, showing other members what they can learn in a mouse click or two.

"It's amazing," Van Nooten said. "People are becoming brilliant on the Net. Now, we do research projects on the computer. People are bringing issues to the table, and we research them together. It's becoming a lot of fun. It's enlightening. It's a dream come true."

Rhynie, who swims, does yoga and tai chi, praised the tutoring program. "It has inspired me and given me more confidence in other facets of my life," she explained. "Even at 80, you can be enthused and excited about learning. It's marvelous."

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