WASHINGTON, D.C., March 25, 1999 — Imagine you are the owner of a small timber company somewhere in the Western United States and that you’ve bid a few hundred thousand dollars for the right to use land managed by the USDA Forest Service. You’ve sent in a check for the proper amount, and your crews are ready to go to work. But before they can get started, the local Forest Service office must receive notification that you’ve paid in full. So far, there’s no record of your payment, and you’re worried about the money you’re going to lose for every hour that your crew sits idle.
Fortunately for you, Carlyne Orr, a 73-year-old Forest Service employee, is sitting at a computer screen in the agency’s Lakewood, Colorado, office near Denver. A communications assistant with the Fiscal and Accounting Department of the Forest Service, Orr keeps track of money that is paid to the Forest Service for everything from recreation to grazing to logging on Forest Service land. Payments, which range from a few hundred dollars to a few million, are typically made to a bank in California and then transferred through the Washington, D.C., office of the Forest Service. Sometimes, those payments get lost.
When that happens, it’s Orr’s job to figure out where the money has gone. Some of her work is done over the phone, but mostly she works electronically, using her computer to trace the digital trail that your money left behind as it bounced from account to account. And if you’ve actually made a payment with sufficient funds to back it up, you can rest assured that Orr will track it down.
“Believe me, those checks can end up almost anywhere,” says Orr, who counts seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren among her descendents. “But I have a real sixth sense for finding the money.”
Orr’s sixth sense for locating missing checks has earned her the gratitude of scores of companies during the nine years she has worked for the Forest Service. More recently, her computer skills earned her the first-ever Microsoft Technology Award for older workers. The award, which comes with a state-of-the-art computer and library of Microsoft products, was established to recognize the achievements of seniors who use digital technologies in their day-to-day work.
In addition to the home computer given to Orr, Microsoft will create a computer center for Colorado senior citizens in her name. Equipped with 10 multimedia PCs, the center will provide seniors with the opportunity to use technology to gain skills they will need to participate in the 21st century workforce as well as to share their knowledge and experiences with their families and communities.
“Carlyne’s ability to master technology later in life makes her a wonderful example of the benefits of technology for people of all ages,” says Craig Spiezle, director of the Microsoft Senior Initiative. “Because of her determination, hundreds of seniors in Colorado will have the chance to learn computer skills, giving them the opportunity to discover the exciting possibilities technology presents to people of all ages.”
Orr received the Microsoft Technology Award last night in Washington, D.C., where she was also honored as one of the nation’s Outstanding Older Workers by Green Thumb, a national organization dedicated to providing older individuals with opportunities to learn, work, and serve others. Each year, Green Thumb recognizes 52 seniors from 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia who exemplify “the positive work ethic, experience, loyalty, and dependability that are so important to the demands of today’s workplace.”
Orr was hired by the Forest Service in 1990. Already 63 years old at the time, she was a complete computer novice when her boss sat her down in front of a terminal for the first time. “I had never touched a computer before my first day of work at the Forest Service,” she recalls. “I have to admit that my first reaction was to be frightened.”
If Orr’s accomplishment were simply the tale of a senior willing to conquer her anxiety about technology and remain a contributing, working member of society, it still would be noteworthy enough. But there is much more to her story than that: When she was hired by the Forest Service, Orr had been out of work for 10 years and receiving full Social Security disability as the result of a bizarre accident.
In 1980, Orr was president of a rapidly growing greeting card company based in Chicago, Illinois. The cards, which Orr designed and wrote, were distributed in New York and Chicago, and her sales staff was just beginning to take the company nationwide when her plans came to a crashing end one evening.
“I was invited to the grand opening of a supper club near Chicago,” she recalls. “It was Halloween and several men came dressed in costumes. One had a sort of staff as part of his costume, but it was really a heavy weightlifting bar. He set it in on the chair behind me, and the bar slipped and hit me on the head.”
Orr suffered a devastating head injury. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was hard for me to walk and hard for me to talk. I was in terrible pain, and I never thought I’d be able to work again.” She spent much of the next 10 years in and out of hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic, undergoing intensive rehabilitation.
In the winter of 1990, however, she found herself at the Forest Service office in Lakewood. She was there to meet a friend. “I’d heard about this job and I was supposed to help take my friend to the interview,” she remembers. “But it happened during the middle of a blinding snow storm, so she never found the building.”
Orr went to the personnel office to explain what had happened, where she was encouraged to interview for the job herself. “I told them in the interview that I’d had a serious head injury,” she says. “Surprisingly enough, three days later they called to offer me the job.”
Orr’s initial position with the Forest Service was an entry-level job partly subsidized by the Department of Labor’s Senior Community Service Employment Program. In 1993, she was made a permanent hire in an unsubsidized position. She was promoted to her current position in 1997.
“She did a marvelous job in learning the software program,” according to Forest Service supervisor Peter Gilmour. “Beyond the excellent work, Carlyne is an infectious leader in the area of positive morale and support for others. Fiscal and Accounting departments are notorious for being ‘stress factories,’ but Carlyne’s easy-going, humble, positive attitude in the face of life’s difficulties has helped to create a positive work environment, reduce stress, and serve as an encouragement to the rest of the staff.”
“I’m not a person that gets frustrated easily,” says Orr, who credits her religious faith for both her remarkable recovery and her even disposition. “Whatever happens, I’ve seen worse.”
Bridging the Digital Divide
Orr is just one of a growing number of seniors who are tackling technology and using it not only for their own benefit, but the benefit of their communities. In increasing numbers, older people are taking advantage of computers to stay in contact with friends and family, to write memoirs and conduct genealogical research, and to develop and maintain skills that keep them employable and working. In fact, people over age 60 in North America are becoming first-time computer owners at a faster rate than any other demographic group.
While that may sound promising, the rapid growth rate is in large measure due to what Spiezle calls the “digital divide.” According to a study commissioned jointly by Microsoft and the American Society on Aging and released earlier this month, seniors lag far behind the general population in computer use: Only 24 percent of seniors own and use computers, compared with nearly 50 percent of the population at large. And for seniors between the ages of 70 and 79, that number falls to just 16 percent.
“People are living longer and healthier lives, but as technology becomes more a part of our daily lives, seniors are being left out of the information age,” says Spiezle. “The need to bridge this gap and provide seniors with the tools they need to access the information highway is greater than ever.”
The Microsoft Senior Initiative is aimed at helping to bridge this digital divide. Launched officially in 1998, the Senior Initiative grew out of a four-year cross-company effort started by Spiezle to find ways that Microsoft could work with seniors to help them gain experience with technology. He was inspired by his parents.
“My parents were visiting and asked about the letters WWW that they were seeing everywhere,” he wrote in an article for the Microsoft Seniors and Technology Web site. “I decided to show them firsthand and found myself dragging two reluctant seniors over to my computer. Before long we were looking at a picture of a firehouse that my father, a retired architect, had designed years ago in Lawrenceville, N.J. A volunteer fireman had created a site on the World Wide Web of training facilities in his area, and there was Dad’s creation. My parents were mesmerized . . . . They surfed way into the night.”
Spiezle shared that experience with colleagues at work, who encouraged him in his newfound passion to create new ways to provide technology to older people who might not otherwise have access.
Today, through its Senior Initiative, Microsoft has teamed up with a wide variety of organizations, including Green Thumb, the National Council on the Aging, the American Society on Aging, and SeniorNet, to finance training centers and provide skills training. The Microsoft Senior Initiative’s Seniors and Technology Web site is an important source for tips and information on acquiring computer literacy skills. In addition, Microsoft is working with the United Nations during the current International Year of the Older Person to help train more than 250,000 seniors by the year 2000.
For Spiezle and the other Microsoft employees involved in the Senior Initiative, Orr is the embodiment of the benefits that come from empowering older workers with cutting-edge technology. “People like Carlyne have tremendous skills and experiences,” he says. “I think it’s very important to give them the tools to mentor others, to share their knowledge, to continue to work, and to make a positive contribution.”
For her part, Orr plans to continue to contribute for the foreseeable future. “I’ll be 74 in a few days,” she says. “My mother didn’t retire until she was 83. She’s 93 now and she still has a sharp mind, so I’ll probably be able to keep going for at least a few years longer.”