Unity Computer Center and Clubhouse — a decade of technological literacy

Story and slideshow by DEREK SIDDOWAY

Take an engaging visual tour of the many services available at the Computer Center and Clubhouse.

The Unity Computer Center and Carole Costa have come a long way helping people in the past 10 years.

“This place had a tiny computer lab in a trailer and they were looking for people to help with the youth program,” the 41-year-old computer center manager said. “One thing led to another and 10 years later I manage the whole place.”

Originally from France, Costa relocated in 2000 to Utah where she began volunteer work at the Unity Computer Center. Dissatisfied with educational systems she believed placed too much emphasis on testing rather than teaching, Costa left her educational background and began chasing her technological passions.

“I used to be a language arts teacher,” Costa said. “Robotics and computers were a hobby. You never know what your hobbies will lead to.” A year of volunteering later, she hired on part-time and eventually became a full-time employee at the Unity Computer Center.

Looking at the center now, it’s hard to believe it once resided in a trailer. Located at 900 W. 1383 South within the Sorenson Unity Center, today there are two computer labs: the Unity Computer Center for adults and the Unity Computer Clubhouse designed for children and teens. According to the Sorenson Center’s annual report, the Unity Computer Center served 955 adults and 304 youth throughout the 2010-2011 fiscal year and averaged more than 1,100 visits each month.

Keeping with the Unity Computer Center’s mission for computer literacy, a variety of services are available to patrons. In addition to open-access hours, users can attend computer literacy classes, specialized workshops and multimedia activities designed to expand their technological know-how. There are 14 computers available for adult use and 20 for the youth in the Computer Clubhouse.

Intel sponsors 100 Computer Clubhouses across the world. Costa describes the setup as a combination of public and corporation funding from Salt Lake City, the Eccles School of Business and Intel. Like other clubhouses, there is a vast array of multimedia technology for children to explore including graphic design, digital music production, video game design and Lego robotics.

Although the technology is certainly enjoyable for youth, the hope is that they will carry the skills they have learned into college and the job field. Costa, other Computer Clubhouse employees and volunteers place an emphasis on multimedia application in the real world.

“With children the agenda is always to graduate high school and get a better job. Most kids will be the first generation in their family to go to college,” Costa said.

One example is the music room. Inside, children can record, produce and mix to create their own songs in the same fashion the music industry does. As well as gaining valuable technical skills, the youth also learn important social skills such as teamwork. After the children have recorded enough songs to fill a CD they work in Photoshop to create an album cover. They also have the option of creating music videos for their music.

On the adult side, the Unity Computer Center emphasizes a more fundamental approach to computer literacy.  Many patrons have little or no computer background, so starting with foundational skills such as Internet use, email, word processing and other essentials is necessary. Another area of focus is job readiness — updating résumés and online job searching. Classes are held mostly in the morning or evening and are available in English and Spanish.

“The people here are easy to work with and friendly,” Steven Jensen said.

Jensen is a computer center patron and volunteer. He has been coming to the Unity Computer Center on an almost daily basis since 2004. Jensen uses the center to polish and expand his computer skills. By means of Excel, he has created a variety of formula-controlled databases to display in a portfolio for potential employers.

“Right now I’m going through Excel and amortization skills. I use Microsoft Office Suite a lot,” Jensen said. “I create databases of names, addresses and attendance and then I create queries to see how many people have attended within a certain range.”

Jensen also stressed the importance of the Unity Computer Center for locals. He wants to get the word out that the center is a valuable community asset and deserves recognition for its services.

“People can come here who have not gone to college but want a computer background,” he said. “It’s a great place for people who want to use computers.”

Heather Fuller, 50, a staff member since December 2010, has seen firsthand how the Unity Computer Center changes lives. Fuller came to the center after discovering the job on the University of Utah job board.

“I thought it was such an interesting idea of how to help people,” Fuller said. “I loved the concept of what they do here, helping underprivileged children and adults, teaching workshops.”

One of the workshops that Fuller had a hand in was a Mexican cooking blog. Each week for two years, women without any computer background met for classes.

Classes changed every six months. Fuller said students began with “breaking down computers and putting them back together, learning how to type, email and use Facebook, From there they went to film editing and blogging.”

The highlight was the blog, designed by the women, complete with how-to cooking videos they filmed and edited themselves. Carole Costa, who manages the adult side of the computer center in addition to the clubhouse, said it was quite the achievement for women who had started out with little-to-no computer knowledge.

Fuller was likewise proud of the group. “(Patrons) learn everything from simple tasks on the computer to finding a job, to being able to communicate with family and friends — something that would have never been possible because they don’t have a computer at home,” Fuller said. “(The center) provides an amazing experience for every walk of life, every age group.”