In North Carolina, Centric employees launched a Centric Together initiative to help people in one community. After just a few months, employees can now replicate the effort nationwide.
My home of Carolina Beach, North Carolina, is a resort community 15 miles south of Wilmington. It is proud of its beautiful boardwalk, recreational activities, culture, and good shops and restaurants. In many ways, it is a throwback to simpler times.
However, Carolina Beach faces the same realities of 2020 as any other American community. As a tourist destination, many jobs are low-paying and seasonal. These positions attract migratory workers who struggle to put down roots and provide for their children. I often see tents and other shelters full of families next to million-dollar homes.
When Centric started talking about its Centric Together initiative, I started thinking about Carolina Beach. Centric Together is part of our diversity and inclusion initiatives, and it reflects our core value of creating sustainable, positive change in the communities we serve.
In Carolina Beach, my son attends a local elementary school, and my wife, Angie, teaches at Kure Beach Methodist School. Every day, Angie sees the challenges her students face who struggle with basic needs at home while also needing access to online education during the pandemic.
As Centric Together’s vision evolved in 2020, Angie and I started thinking about the initiative’s goals. Centric Together wanted to resolve inequities in the communities where we live and work. It wanted to support underserved communities, create opportunities and provide job skills, and build relationships in communities. And it wanted to use our technical expertise to enable digital inclusion.
It was a big list. How could we tackle such an enormous challenge?
Working with others on the Centric Together team, Angie and I decided to start at home in Carolina Beach to build a template that Centric employees could replicate in their communities.
This is our story.
Understanding the Carolina Beach Ecosystem
Our first step was to learn what resources we already had available. Thanks to Angie’s connections in the educational community, we approached Carolina Beach Elementary Principal Leake, Assistant Principal Tomjack and Guidance Counselor Ivey.
These school leaders provided invaluable insight into their students’ socioeconomic, emotional and psychological needs and the community’s technical infrastructure — though it soon became apparent that technical access would be easier to provide than emotional support. We would need to provide a lot of familial support, too. Tech is only a fraction of our work. It is more about relationships, helping, nurturing, encouraging and problem-solving.
For example, North Carolina offers free use of laptops and iPads to public school students, and many local businesses and churches provide free Wi-Fi. New Hanover County School’s Technology Division is developing a list of drive-up Wi-Fi access zones near schools and in the community. And, they are equipping more than 280 school buses with Wi-Fi, thanks to donations from AT&T, Google and the Duke Energy Foundation.
With help on the way for kids’ technical access, we began thinking about the bigger challenge of giving kids a social support system. Again, working with the Centric Together team, we started to envision Centric volunteers who could donate an hour or so of their time a week to being virtual buddies for kids. The volunteers could be a voice and a face to talk to, provide encouragement and advice, and act as role models for what working in tech could look like.
Fortunately, New Hanover County’s Public School System had a formal orientation and credentialing process in place for volunteers. After completing a short, free training program including risks and social issues, and paying a nominal fee for background checks, Angie and I joined two Centric Charlotte employees, T. J. Felice and Kevin Anderson, as officially credentialed volunteers.
Angie and I were ready to meet our first family.
Our First Family
We met the Carter family with cupcakes in hand (I have changed the family’s names to protect their privacy). As the kids, two young girls, enjoyed their snacks, we learned more about their family’s situation.
One girl, Sarah, suffers from severe emotional and educational challenges. She struggles to meet educational requirements. Her sister, Zoe, is a precocious girl and very bright. No parents are in the picture, so the girls’ grandmother handles most of their care, and she is overwhelmed.
As we suspected, technology was not the girls’ primary problem, and the girls seemed to have a handle on most of their assignments. Both girls were eager to learn but needed help getting organized. Angie worked with their teachers to break the daily work into pieces so it wouldn’t become overwhelming as the school year went on.
Though the girls understood how to use their electronic resources, Zoe especially had trouble remembering scheduled Zoom meetings. Low tech to the rescue: Angie helped her set up recurring alarms on her phone 10 minutes ahead of each session on Mondays and Wednesdays.
We did encounter one technical hiccup. For security reasons, Centric does not support Zoom on company computers. Kevin worked with Centric IT to secure a dedicated laptop for Zoom use and solved the problem.
The more challenging and rewarding part of working with the family has been the relationships we have developed in a very short amount of time. When Sarah sees Angie working with her to learn material, she experiences trust. Zoe is learning important problem-solving skills and has someone she can talk to. Their grandmother is getting a much-needed break.
Ultimately, our work is less about technology and more about family and just being there.
Conclusion: The Path Beyond Carolina Beach
We always considered our work at Carolina Beach to be a pilot project that could help other Centric groups decide how to implement Centric Together in their communities. After seeing how quickly (and cost-effectively) we could begin helping people at our home, we know our experience can be a template for others.
We built a program that involves resources most communities already have:
- Centric volunteers to serve as program leads, family sponsors and tech partners
- Public school relationships
- Churches and businesses
- One or more food banks.
Program leads can develop, ramp and operate the program. Family sponsors, like Angie and I, can conduct check-ins, triage and engagements with the greatest-need families with guidance and training from a public school. Tech partners can help secure or provide internet access within the community as needed, coordinating with family sponsors. All positions can go through a local school’s volunteer training program, with ongoing time commitments being two-to-four hours a week.
Our work in Carolina Beach has been humbling, inspiring and energizing. As we prepare for 2021, we look forward to working with other Centric Together teams to deploy this simple model for quick, impactful community engagement across the country. Together, we can make a difference.