[This is a joint news release with Wake County Smart Start.]
Reaching vulnerable families and connecting them to transformative programs is foundational to the work of Wake County Smart Start (WCSS). Families without devices or internet connections face significant challenges enrolling or even finding out about community resources that could help provide life-changing support. The pandemic only made this digital divide deeper. Now, thanks to a partnership between WCSS and Wake County Health and Human Services’ Best Baby Zone, a new program is putting devices and wireless service into the hands of some of the county’s most vulnerable families.
“Families isolated by COVID-19 have faced extraordinary challenges from the pandemic, and they have carried much of it alone, unable to access Wake’s system of services for help. This has increased the risks for children. What we know is that when families have access to resources and programs they need, children thrive,” said Wake County Smart Start Executive Director Gayle E. Headen.
To help address this system gap, WCSS identified Wake County Health and Human Services (WCHHS) as a distribution partner that would manage equipment and service costs. The County is mobilizing its Maternal Child Health Program staff to identify families with the highest need. Prioritization was given to families living within the Best Baby Zone in SE Raleigh. This initiative works to reduce infant mortality that disproportionality affects African American mothers when compared to other races in 27610 and 27601 ZIP codes.
“We live in a digital age where internet is a necessity, not a luxury and having reliable technology and devices are vital,” said Wake County Commissioner Maria Cervania. “By focusing on our Best Baby Zone residents, we can ensure all families are well connected with every available community resource and support enabling them to thrive and reach their full potential."
WCSS has invested $310,250 in the overall project, including $69,000 in Verizon service and equipment in-kind credits and a donation of $4,000 from the RBC Foundation, yielding 225 tablets and 25 Hot Spots preloaded with two years of wireless service. This week marks the first wave of distribution for the project.
On Oct. 14, families selected for the program received their device. During the community event Verizon staff were on hand to offer in-person technical support on how to use the device and explain the special technical support line created to help them navigate usage once home. Families also had access to an early childhood system navigator to ask questions about programs to sign up for.
The remaining devices will be distributed through additional partners following a similar model.