Okay, I admit it. I am an idealistic sap. My favorite movie in the world is “Pay It Forward,” about a young troubled boy whose teacher challenges him to come up with an idea that will change the world. He develops the concept of “paying it forward,” in which an act of kindness is not paid back, but rather, is paid forward by doing good deeds for three other people. I love this idea!
Last week Byte Back was invited to an elegant reception at the new Arena Stage to kick off a new partnership called “Pay It Forward” between the Federal Communications Bar Association, One Economy and Byte Back, in which the FCBA’s members will share their time and talent with Byte Back and One Economy, volunteering to teach, mentor, tutor and support those learning new technology skills. This new partnership was the idea of FCBA President Bryan Tramont, who also picked the name of the initiative.
Ever since this kick-off event, as I have prepared for Thanksgiving weekend, I have been thinking anew about the concept of “paying it forward” as it relates to Byte Back. My conclusion? Paying it forward is what Byte Back has been about since the beginning.
A dozen years ago, when I first heard about Byte Back, what captured my attention was the design of the Internship program. Low-income students would receive free advanced classes in exchange for volunteering to teach beginning students. At the end of their studies, the advanced students would work with a mentor on an independent project, providing free IT services to nonprofits. What I loved about this was not only that the students would get hands-on experience, but also that they would start off their new IT careers by paying it forward to others.
Unfortunately, when I was hired as Byte Back’s Executive Director two years ago, the Internship program no longer existed. It had been eliminated due to financial constraints. This October we started a new kind of Internship program. Our Computer Repair/Recycle/Refurbish program is a partnership between Byte Back and two other nonprofits. Byte Back provides training in computer hardware leading to the A+ certification, as well as training in QuickBooks. Washington Area Community Investment Fund simultaneously teaches the students about how to start their own business. At the end of their classroom training, the students spend an entire month in an internship with First Time Computers, repairing and refurbishing computers for low-income families. At the end of their internship, they take the A+ exam and decide whether they want to start their own neighborhood-based computer repair shop or to work for someone else’s company as a computer support specialist. The teacher of the Byte Back computer classes is Michael Bradley, who is a recent graduate of our A+ program, attained his A+ certification and is running his own computer repair business!
There is something so exquisite about watching people pay it forward, and this is something I have the good fortune to witness every day at Byte Back. Last year, in the height of the recession, I met many individuals who had just been laid off, and decided to come volunteer at Byte Back while they searched for a new job. Thanks almost entirely to this phenomenon, Byte Back’s in-kind revenue increased 600% from FY08 to FY09, and another 33% from FY09 to FY10. One such person is Sheila, a graphic designer who created a new logo for us as well as redesigning our newsletter and annual report.
Over the past year we have had not one, but two individuals who were literally homeless and sleeping on park benches, who would spend their time teaching our classes. Both gentlemen have significant computer experience and had fallen on tough times, but their hardship did not prevent them from giving to others. I find this kind of giving spirit absolutely astonishing.
This year we have a total of eight AmeriCorps volunteers working at Byte Back. All are bright, talented, educated individuals who decided to spend the year living in poverty in order to serve our students. Many are literally living on Food Stamps while teaching our students. This act of kindness and generosity is amazing to me. Their talent, energy and enthusiasm have literally transformed Byte Back over the past few months.
Again and again I witness our students paying it forward as well. Last year a student came to class with twenty four small plants, whose roots and soil were carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. She brought these seedlings to share with her instructor and fellow students. Another student brought a gigantic bag filled with fresh baked loaves of bread to share with her class. Last winter, as we were finishing up with our first round of computer classes for senior citizens, almost a dozen seniors volunteered to immediately pay it forward by assisting to teach the next class. Last month, for our 13th birthday, we wrote to our students and graduates asking if they might make a $13 donation to Byte Back. Dozens of students responded, sending checks and money orders for $13, $15, $25. Two students even went out and purchased birthday cards for us!
Chief among our graduates who pay it forward are Felicia Hawkins and Debony Heart. Felicia graduated from our Office Track class and was hired as Office Manager several years ago. She is 100% dedicated to our mission and our students, never for a moment forgetting the purpose of our work. A few months ago, after a particularly stressful period at Byte Back, I gave one of our refurbished laptops to Felicia as a reward. She turned it down, wanting to save it for our students. Debony Heart graduated from our Internship program years ago, was hired by Byte Back, and moved up the ranks to Director of Programs. Heart is the last line of defense for our students. Often the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave, Heart is the one who makes sure that no matter what, our students get what they came for. Yesterday, despite fighting a head cold, Heart spend the entire day teaching three classes back to back at Anacostia Library so that one of our AmeriCorps instructors could leave DC early to spend Thanksgiving and his birthday with family.
This morning I heard about a new book called “The 17 Second Miracle,” about how you can change someone’s life, and your own, by looking for opportunities to do something nice for someone else – helping someone carry their groceries, helping the proverbial old lady cross the street, allowing someone to go ahead of you in line at the grocery store. Miracles happen like this all the time at Byte Back, and I am deeply thankful that I am blessed to have the opportunity to witness them first hand.
What are your thoughts on paying it forward? If you enjoyed this blog, please share it with others.