A Microsoft initiative to give disadvantaged youths a leg up on technology should be reaching children in Polk County sometime before the end of the year.
Microsoft's YouthSpark is a global initiative to bridge the digital divide that blocks access to the sort of technology available to children of means.
The corporation intends to reach thousands of needy children with help from the Children's Home Society of Florida, a statewide nonprofit serving some 2,000 children in Polk and 90,000 children and families throughout the state.
CHS received a $7.3 million Microsoft grant late last year to spread the YouthSpark initiative, beginning with a pilot program in the Daytona Beach area.
In coming months it will spread throughout the rest of the state, reaching primarily children in foster care as well as those caught up in the juvenile justice system.
The goal is to give these and many other disadvantaged children access to computers and current software programs, as well as adult mentors who double as technology coaches, said CHS spokeswoman Allison Buchanan.
"They know how to play video games and search online but they don't know how to use technology in an education format or to use for careers," she said.
Through YouthSpark, children will learn a variety of skills from making PowerPoint presentations to filling out online job applications.
"Working with Microsoft, we are developing solutions to child welfare challenges that were previously out of reach," said Michael Shaver, CEO of CHS of Florida, in a news release.
Giving children from poverty-stricken households such skills is an ideal way to boost their chances for success in college and beyond, said Eliza McCall-Horne, executive director of CHS programs in the greater Lakeland division, which oversees services in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.
Locally, the YouthSpark initiative will provide access to a number of CHS offices, including the Lakeland headquarters at 1010 E. Rose St. Children will be given opportunities to use computer labs, and they will be paired with mentors.
CHS soon will mount a fundraising drive to supplement the Microsoft grant, raising money for one or more mobile computer labs, taking services directly into poorer neighborhoods.
"Although the $7.3 million (grant) is going to help, we'll have to actually go out and do some fundraising to make this a reality in our division," McCall-Horne said. "We'll be equipped to bring this lab wherever we need to go."
[ Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528. ]
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