Local Heroes 2011 – Peter Nelson
Because technical literacy brings opportunity.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
“I’m just making this S*** up as I go along,” jokes Peter Nelson, who runs the Salinas Chinatown Community Learning Center, a computer lab and digital literacy classroom for underserved populations. But Nelson’s seat-of-his-pants approach is neither disorganized nor careless. In fact, this nonprofit veteran is hailed for bringing stability and new skills to a population whose circumstances and needs are ever changing.
The center, a 5-year-old partnership between the city of Salinas and CSU-Monterey Bay’s Service Learning Institute, sits on a strip of Soledad Street that features a cast of characters, many of them homeless, who’ve seen and survived more than most would care to contemplate. Nelson’s there to help them bridge the digital divide.
“The importance of digital access for homeless people is paramount,” he says. “Whether it’s getting a job or reconnecting with people, computer skills are vital in our society.”
The center, catty-corner to the beloved community garden Nelson helped build in 2006, is busy but quiet on a recent Monday morning as patrons use some of the 16 desktop stations to check email or download photos. The hardware was donated by Seaside-based Loaves, Fishes and Computers; the spruced-up building, its interior freshly painted in sunny shades of orange and green, is supported by a federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant. Free classes in computer literacy and job training are available for those seeking employment and new skills.
Nelson says he gets between 15 and 20 unique visitors per day, many familiar faces. “I’ve been here five years, so I know almost everyone by first name,” Nelson says. Indeed, he greets visitors with a warm smile and a friendly inquiry about the latest in their lives. He also facilitates communication between the patrons and the CSUMB volunteers.
“It’s great to see these fresh-faced, naive 20-year-olds working side-by-side with these grizzled old men,” Nelson says. “It’s not hard to get volunteers; people really love this work.”
According to Lewis Harrison, it’s paying off.
“This place helped me get back on my feet,” he says. Originally from New Orleans, he moved to Salinas post-Katrina to be with family. He got by for a while, but in 2009, jobless and computer illiterate, he sought out Nelson’s help. He now works at the center part-time, and credits it and Nelson for giving him a renewed sense of stability and connectedness.
“It’s amazing how much I’ve learned in such a short time,” Harrison says. He’s also used social media to reconnect with his long-lost son, a story Nelson says is not uncommon.
“Social media is the best thing to come along for the homeless community in a long time,” he says. “Many have lost touch with their families, and the first thing they do when they get an email address is join a social network and try to find people. I love being a part of that.”
Iris Peppard, who coordinates the Chinatown Community Garden, heralds his creation of a face-to-face social network founded on trust.
“He serves so many people with compassion and accountability,” she says. “He’s exactly what Chinatown needs.”