BEACHWOOD, Ohio — Northeast Ohio’s digital divide affects families in many different ways from education to employment. The Phe’be Foundation’s Wired 2 Work program is taking aim at the employment issue by paying for families’ internet service to help adults keep their jobs, like Jessica Keys.
“I am a collection agent. So, initially, we are calling to collect on debts,” said Keys. “So when the pandemic hit a lot of people were out of work. They weren’t able to – not alone – support their family, but take care of their past due dates. So that did affect my work tremendously.”
Keys said during the pandemic, her employer let her work remotely, but she had trouble affording high-speed internet access, which affected the number of calls she could make and her paycheck.
“It was a little overwhelming and with me not being able to have the capabilities to work how I needed to work, I was losing out on money,” Keys said.
She turned to the Wired 2 Work program, an initiative started by the Phe’be Foundation, a financial literacy education nonprofit in Cuyahoga County.
Executive Director Sharron Murphy Williams said when the pandemic hit and things went virtual, they realized they couldn’t reach many of their clients because of the digital divide, so they started the program, which is geared specifically to adults who need the internet to keep their jobs.
“We created a fund, if you will, where we help people close the financial gap of the digital divide. Up to one year, we will pay for someone’s internet service,” said Murphy Williams. “We stepped out of the traditional box of helping those that there’s always help and we met where we have seniors, we had to provide hotspots that were in battered shelters just to have access to their banking because we saw a lot of bank fraud with our seniors.”
“We’ve given hotspots to college students at Cleveland State that live in men’s shelters, that use the library of the campuses to finish their work, to do their school and when the campuses were as the country was—how did they do that ? And so we were able to be one of those vehicles that they could utilize and they didn’t have to be on public assistance or have a disability,” said Murphy Williams.
It’s funded with contributions from Fifth Third Bank, Dominion East Ohio, and nearly $25,000 from the United Black Fund alone.
“In a world where things were quickly turning virtual, it was our quick decision to fund the effort,” said United Black Fund executive director Cecil Lipscomb.
So far, it has connected 67 households and more than 500 individuals.
All people need to do to enroll in the program is show they need the help — even if they still have an income.
“I was gainfully employed. And usually, when you hear about programs like this, you would need to — at the wit’s end of the pandemic — you would need to be unemployed. You would need to have children, be on financial assistance, and I didn’t have any of that. So I was very shocked when I found an organization that would offer me some form of assistance, even though I was employed,” said Keys.
Murphy Williams said the results have been great.
“We’ve been able to assist people to sustain employment, having the option to work from home, having that internet service allowed them to opt into and still maintain their jobs,” said Murphy Williams. “We have some kids who actually were able to go to their graduation, because it was virtual. We have just watched people be better.”
She said she’s even seen some people get back on their feet after a few months and pay the rest of their service forward to someone else in need, like Keys did.
“I was able to use their assistance for about six months. And then after that, I was able to go ahead and reconfigure my budget, and I was able to give that other six months back to someone else who was in my position that could have used it,” said Keys. “I was very fortunate to have the organization and someone like Miss Murphy Williams, who sat down, looked over my budget and helped me to initially be able to help someone else.”
Lipscomb said the program is a work in progress, but has had many success stories.
“But as we know, the world is making a decision right now, whether we are going to expand this virtual environment or whether we’re going to pull back from it. So, my fear is that people will not have access to job opportunities in the future…we will continue to support the Wired 2 Work program. But there’s more to come. We have to put in the effort and more money around getting people access to internet computers and just the critical understanding of how this digital age is coming into existence,” said Lipscomb.
Wired 2 Work is open to people in need across Northeast Ohio, not just in Cuyahoga County. Murphy Williams said the Phe’be Foundation is starting a fundraising campaign in April to garner more funding for the program. For more information, scan the QR code below or text “CONNECTCLE” to 44-321.
Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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