How United Way is bridging the digital divide

The COVID-19 crisis has made digital devices and the internet even more critical in our daily lives – buying groceries, working from home, attending school, staying connected with friends and more. But even with the countless ways to stay connected virtually, many in the greater St. Louis area are getting left behind.

There is a growing gap – the digital divide – among vulnerable populations with little to no access to computers or the internet. Without these tools, many of our neighbors struggle to access basic resources.

To ensure our neighbors can stay connected, United Way recently awarded 10 one-time grants totaling $46,914 to local nonprofits to bridge the digital divide in the St. Louis region. The funding will provide internet access and digital devices to continue to help people live their best possible lives.

The growing divide

Across the St. Louis region, more than 1 in 10 households don’t have a computer, and more than 2 in 10 don’t have internet access, according to US Census data.

United Way’s funding empowers local nonprofits to help those most vulnerable to digital divide challenges: low-income families, kids in school, older adults and people living with disabilities.

“The digital divide is not a new challenge for many across our community, but the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated that need,” said Michelle Tucker, president and CEO of United Way of Greater St. Louis. “These grants will provide additional, needed support to agencies that are helping our most vulnerable populations to keep learning, working and staying connected socially to live their best possible lives.”

Staying connected to education

A lack of connectivity creates challenges for families with children attending school remotely. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 1 in 5 parents say it’s at least somewhat likely that their children will not be able to finish their schoolwork because there is no computer or internet available. Lower-income homes are disproportionately impacted by these challenges.

This was true for Rachel*, a tenth grader who attends all of her classes on Zoom while her foster mom works full-time out of the house. The family’s internet connection was unstable, which meant Rachel couldn’t attend all of her classes. Her grades started slipping, which was upsetting for Rachel, who had always worked hard in school.

Because of a digital divide grant from United Way, Rachel received a hotspot and tablet through Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition. It got her back in class so she could continue working toward academic success.

Accessing critical resources

The digital divide doesn’t only impact students. Older adults and individuals living with disabilities, who already face higher risks of social isolation, may miss out on critical social interactions if they don’t have the tools to keep up with friends and family remotely.

Digital divide funding from United Way empowers local nonprofits like Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis (DSAGSL), Illinois Center for Autism, Lincoln County Council on Aging and others to provide these individuals with resources that support connection, engagement and growth.

“Individuals with Down syndrome are at a high risk of social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Erin Suelmann, executive director of DSAGSL. “This grant will help reduce barriers to our services, ensuring that individuals with Down syndrome can participate in our programming regardless of their means.”

The digital divide support can make all the difference for families who receive support from nonprofits but are unable to receive in-person services. It empowers local nonprofits like FamilyForward to offer virtual programs and ensures more people will have access to them, such as mental health supports.

“FamilyForward’s services address the individual, familial and community factors that are known risk factors for abuse, neglect and other family adversities. This is done through a wraparound assessment, counseling, parent coaching, case management, mentoring and advocacy,” said Binaca Mairidith, clinical and grant management assistant at FamilyForward. “The ability to use these funds to meet the individualized needs of families impacted by the digital divide allows access to truly meaningful resources for better health, education and safety.”

The funding is just one of the ways United Way works to address emerging needs in the St. Louis region.

“This crisis has highlighted the critical importance of having access to technology and the internet for one to thrive and succeed in life,” said Regina Greer, chief impact officer at United Way of Greater St. Louis. “It is our goal to continue to support digital access and literacy into the future.”

*Name changed for privacy

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James Taylor
James Taylor