- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2016

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - It was a quick lesson on the perils of revealing too much online.

There are many Facebook accounts with another person’s picture on it, and people think they have met “Mr. and Mrs. Right,” Tammy Pollard said to her class at Park View Community Mission in September.

“Turns out it’s ‘Mr. Wrong,’ or ‘Mr. I-want-your-money,’ or ‘Ms. I-need-somebody-to-take-care-of-me,’” Pollard said.

The computer class, which taught internet and office skills, was offered through Lighthouse Communications. The Lynchburg nonprofit provides low-cost, high-speed internet to people living below the federal poverty level, nonprofits and the community at large.

For students who live below the federal poverty guidelines, the class is free. An individual who makes less than $11,880 annually meets the federal poverty guideline. For others, the cost of the class is based on a sliding scale.

The mission of Lighthouse Communications can be summed up in the biblical verse Hosea 4:6, which states: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

Lighthouse attempts to reduce people’s suffering through offering knowledge, said its founder, Mark Lindy.

“The internet is the way that knowledge is conveyed in the 21st century,” he said.

Around 2001, Lindy was working at Genworth Financial Inc. as a data center engineer when he said he received a calling from God to quit his job and start a company with the purpose of communicating God’s message of love and hope.

About a year later, he quit his position at the insurance firm to dedicate himself to his start-up, Digital One, a company with services that include live internet streaming for churches, video production and screen and projector graphics. Through the internet, homebound worshippers can watch church services live and contribute through virtual tithing.

The nonprofit Lighthouse Communications came by way of a second calling, he said.

As a volunteer at Park View Community Mission, Lindy began to notice the same people coming to the mission each week and wondered why some appeared to not be moving forward in life.

“That’s when the voice said, ‘strap an antenna to the steeple and see what happens,’” he said.

Lighthouse Communications was incorporated around 2014 and provides low-cost internet service to households living below the federal poverty level guidelines. The nonprofit currently has about 25 clients, which also include nonprofit organizations and businesses. Nonprofits receive a reduced rate, and businesses are billed competitive market rates. All fees, including those from nonprofits and businesses, support Lighthouse.

An antenna on Park View’s bell tower broadcasts microwave signals, and Lighthouse is limited to providing internet service to within a two-mile radius around Park View Community Mission.

Lighthouse began offering computer classes about a year ago. Lindy had been providing one-on-one computer assistance as a Park View volunteer, helping people with job searches or sending email.

The demand for internet skills such as job searching and basic office skills was so great, Lindy said.

“We had no choice (but) to begin the class,” he said.

Unlike portions of neighboring counties, which may be untouched by high-speed internet access, for city residents, “generally speaking, if you’re served by a cable company, you can get internet service,” said Mike Goetz, Lynchburg’s Information Technology Director, who also sits on the Lynchburg Regional Technology Council.

In a city where about a quarter of its population lives in poverty, for some Lynchburg residents, internet accessibility is not so much a problem of availability but cost.

That reality was evident in Lighthouse’s computer class. Student Maggie Elliot had internet service years ago but no longer has it because of the cost. Student Gerard Hutcherson, too, once had internet but had to cut it off because of the expense.

Lynchburg Vice Mayor Treney Tweedy works in the Region 2000 Workforce Center. As most employment applications now are online, “when people don’t have access, it really limits them,” Tweedy said.

For job seekers, there is a computer lab in the Region 2000 Workforce Center building on Odd Fellows Road.

The city offers public computers at its two library branches. Small computer labs also are located in the city’s neighborhood community centers while there is Wi-Fi in eight community centers and the Miller Center on Grove Street.

The purpose of the city offering Wi-Fi in the community centers beginning in the fall of 2014 was, in part, to support the deployment of Chromebooks in the city’s schools under Lynchburg City Schools’ LCS-ONE program and to assist those students who do not have internet access in their homes.

For city residents who find cost to be a barrier to having home internet service, there are other resources available, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost, high-speed internet and discounted computers to qualifying households, such as residents of public housing.

According to Lindy, Lighthouse Communications seeks monetary donations and has applied for grants for additional parts and materials to expand its coverage area.

Until it is able to expand, the nonprofit is unable to accept new clients. While Lighthouse gears itself to nonprofits and people on limited incomes, Lindy said it is open to providing service to the public at large, including businesses, at competitive market rates, with the ensuing revenue going back into the nonprofit.

As part of its philanthropic mission, Lighthouse also accepts donations of used hardware to be refurbished, such as old laptops or desktop computers. Upon the successful completion of the computer class, students receive a voucher for the hardware at reduced prices.

Today, the nonprofit consists of three paid staff members, three volunteers and a board of directors. Lindy said the organization always is looking for volunteers with technical backgrounds.

With knowledge, people can be empowered to make better decisions, Lindy said.


Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/

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